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Susan Wigenton - United States District Judge
Susan D. Wigenton, appointed by President Bush, makes history as the
2nd African-American woman ever appointed as
U.S. District Federal Judge in New JerseyColts Neck is known for being a haven of calm in an often turbulent world, almost as though it were a relic of times gone by. It has resisted the influx of shopping malls, McDonalds, and superhighways and it maintains a peaceful, rural air. Yet the sign of a healthy community is not just how well it resists so-called progress, but how well it incorporates that which is positive. We certainly would not want to do without cable television, for example, much less modern vaccines.
And so it is with social change; we live in an age when many traditional values are no longer necessarily taken for granted. People of many different nations, races, and backgrounds are intermingling and sometimes intermarrying. We are finding out about one another; not only about our differences, but our similarities as well. Now we find on the cover of this issue what once would have been an anomaly for our town: in lieu of the traditional white male, we find a highly esteemed, professional African-American woman who also happens to be a federal judge.
Judge Susan D. Wigenton, who has lived with her lawyer husband and 4-year-old son Kevin in Colts Neck for 5 years, has already earned a number of extremely distinguished credits. Born in Neptune, she earned her undergraduate degree at Norfolk State University and her law degree at William and Mary College, and was admitted to the Bar Association in 1987. Subsequent to her position on the Superior Court of New Jersey as her success in a private law practice, in 2000 she became the first and only African-American to be appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge by the Board of Judges. To cap that honor, this year she was appointed by President Bush to the lifetime post of U.S. District Judge at the federal bench level. As such, she is only the second African-American woman so appointed in New Jersey (Ann Thompson, who still sits as a Senior Judge, was the first, 25 years ago) and one of only seven female judges ever appointed in the state.
Impressive indeed; yet if you didnt know these facts, you wouldnt suspect this pleasant young woman to have such a star-studded resume. She does not come off as feeling superior, different, or judgmental (pun intended). She is warm, friendly, up front, thoughtful but not critical, and intelligent but not overbearing. You would feel comfortable knocking on her door to borrow a cup of sugar, chat about the weather, or play with her charming little boy. She separates her private life from her professional, though partaking fully in both substantially different worlds, and manages to succeed admirably in each. Perhaps that is her greatest accomplishment of all.
LICN: Where did you grow up; what was your early life like?
SW: I grew up between Neptune and Middletown. I have three brothers, so my early life consisted of attending a lot of sporting events since my brothers were very active in sports, and a lot of church since my father has been a pastor since Ive been around.
LICN: So were you involved with the church too?
SW: Yes; Ive always been involved with the church, and Im still involved and active in the church. Its something that goes way back with me and my family.
LICN: Any favorite memories of your childhood?
SW: Just being a close family; always doing things with my brothers and my friendswere very close to this day because of it.
LICN: When did you first become acquainted with Colts Neck? What drew you here?
SW: Ive always known about Colts Neck from growing up in Monmouth County. I always thought Colts Neck was a very pretty town.
LICN: Would you say the natural beauty is the main attraction that brought you here?
SW: Its open. I love that and I love the greenery and the lack of congestion; its very attractive for me.
LICN: Is there anything you would like to see different?
SW: No, not that Im aware of now.
LICN: Id like to ask you if you could describe a typical day.
SW: My day starts at about 4 am when I wake up and go to the gym or stay in the house and exercise. A lot of times I do my grocery shopping around 6 or 6:30, and then I get showered, make my sons lunch for school, then I travel to work [Newark] and then I get to court. I try to leave the courthouse no later than 5:00; then I come back, pick up my son, and come home around 6:30 or 7:00, and thats when its feeding and bath time. I try to get to bed by 9:30 or 10:00 pm. Well, 9:30 doesnt happen much!
LICN: Who were some of your role models?
SW: I would have to say one of the greatest role models has been my parents.. Both grew up picking cotton in Texas but both have gotten their college degrees; my fathers gone as far as to get his doctorate. Theyve just both always been real strong advocates of education, being your own person, and striving towards success. So they have really strongly influenced who I am and what I do.
LICN: What would you say is your greatest achievement in life to date?
SW: My greatest achievement to date is being a mother. Thats something that I find extremely challenging on a daily basis, in a good way. It challenges me to be organized, to be loving and patient, and to be committed to making sure my son has the best environment and great exposure to very positive thingsthat requires a lot of sacrifice on my husbands part and my part. I do think that thats what Im proudest of.
LICN: Kevin is a very nice young man. How old is he?
SW: Kevin is four. Hes my little sweetheart.
LICN: Would you say that there are any specific skills from motherhood you bring to the court, or vice versa?
SW: Probably organizationI dont do well in disorganization, so I at least try to be structured. It helps me feel better, perform better, and I apply it at home, too, in terms of how I prepare for the week.
LICN: Would you say its a relief to come home, a mixed blessing, or both? I imagine your job is extremely stressful but also very rewarding; can you tell us a little about that?
SW: It is a complete relief to come home; its like my sanctuary. Whereas most people are looking forward to going out on weekends, I cant wait to get home. I could stay home all weekend if the little one would let me; I find that I dont mind the work at all. Its totally different work being a mother, a wife, and running a home, and I like the change.
LICN: Would you care to talk at all about work, as far as the stress level, stimulation level, challenge, and so forth?
SW: I think the biggest thing for me is realizing that Im human; because I wear a robe it does not make me anything greater than that. Im still a person, and obviously Im subject to my own life experiences, what Ive been exposed to. I have to always consider that when Im dealing with cases where its civil, and especially when its criminal. Just trying to put yourself in the shoes of a defendant and understanding their minds somehow, especially when youre dealing with addiction and not having the ability to personally relate,just trying to have some compassion that theres an outside force controlling whatthey do a lot of times.
LICN: It can be viewed as a disease.
SW: Exactlyand when we look at what people have given up, what they have lost as a result of it, you realize that thats not their choice. That is something that theyve really had no control over.
LICN: Do you sometimes find that people are surprised when they first meet you to find out how approachable and down-to earth you are, not at all what they might have expected? Theres an image of a judge as being intimidating, austere, or standoffish and youre not like that at all.
SW: Shocked. People are shocked to find out what I do. I rarely tell people what I do. In fact, my standard answer when people ask what I do is that I work for the court, because people do have expectations of who you should be as a judge, how you should act as a judge, and I am completely the opposite. And Im fine with that. I like that, because it allows me to be a regular person in most situations. But people are really very surprised, given my age, given my personality, and they automatically think that Im someone different when Im on the bench,and Im not.
LICN: So youre just who you are.
SW: Yes; its just who I amand its why Ive gotten to where I am, so I wouldnt deny that and deny being myself.
LICN: Do you find it difficult to shift gears from work to being a wife, mother, etc.?
SW: I dont notice it if it is. I think Ive been so fortunate because of my upbringing and my parents. I dont have any issues with Im Judge Wigenton at this time of the day and now I have to be someone else; the flow for me is very smooth. And its the same thing in dealing with people, too. I dont have to forget oh, Im not a judge here; I probably have to remind myself more that I am as opposed to that Im not a judge.
LICN: What would you like us to know about you not as a judge but just as a person, as a neighbor?
SW: I would say I like to have fun, I love to laugh, and I love people. More than anything else, I love people that are sincere and genuine, and I love to be around them. And I try to be that as well.
LICN: It comes across.
SW: Thats who I really try to be because I dont like the pompousness and the lack of sincerity; it really bothers me.
LICN: If you werent a judge, what do you think youd be doing?
SW: I would probably do some acting or music, maybe even be a doctor.
LICN: How do you like to relax? Do you have any hobbies?
SW: I love music, I love movies, and my idea of relaxing would probably be to go to a spa. If I cant get to a spa I would probably go to the movies by myself, in the middle of the afternoon, with a bucket of popcorn. I sing a lot at church, and thats one of the things that I find relaxing, so I relax a lot throughmusic.
LICN: Mostly church music, or all kinds of music?
SW: I love all kinds of music, but I tend to sing more church music because I tend to sing in churchI would love to sing in a small band or something twice a year [laughs].
LICN: Would you like your son to follow you in your footsteps?
SW: Ive not given it any thought, in all honesty. I just really want him to be the best that he can be; hopefully, that is doing something that he can find happiness in, and success. If you can match the two up thats a wonderful thing. But now I cant say; both my husband and I are in law and it certainly creates a bond for us to discuss it and understand each other, but for himhe seems extremely technical, with wires and engineering sort of things, so it wouldnt surprise me if he didnt go into law, but hes already learned the word client [laughs] Youre talking to a client?!
LICN: In the last few years, New Jersey has become sort of infamous nationally fairly or not due to The Sopranos. Were kind of stuck with an image through that. In your experience, is there much truth reflected by that, or do you think its a fair way to judge New Jersey?
SW: Its probably not a fair way to judge the entire stateI happen to love the show for, I guess, the theatrical element of itYou certainly have wise guys in the system, but I dont think its a fair characterization of the entire state.
LICN: I know theres a lot of confidentiality in your work. Is it tough sometimes to keep a lot of stuff in?
SW: It is. There are things that I see and you want to comment on it, but you realize that you cannot.
LICN: Am I right to assume that you cant talk about certain things, even with your husband?
SW: Exactly, and I think because Ive been doing it awhile Ive almost gotten used to that. What you do see is that a lot of times it eventually comes out anywayyou know, I couldnt tell you, but I saw it coming down the pike
LICN: As far as being a judge, do you try to continue established traditions, create your own interpretation, or a little of each?
SW: There are case precedents that you have to follow. I try to temper everything to the facts of the particular case, but you cannot ignore the law that exists, because its a sure way to be reversed, and thats not what were looking to get.
LICN: At the end of your career, what would you like to leave as your legacy?
SW: I would like for people to say that she was fair, she was open, and that she truly cared about the cases that came before her. If I had that as my legacy I would feel that I had a successful career on the bench.
LICN: Now, thats work-related; how about just as a person? How would you like to be remembered as a human being?
SW: I would say Id like to be remembered as a woman of my word; that when I say something to you, you can count on it, you can believe it, and you can know that if I say Im going to do something I will do it.
LICN: You are certainly a good role model for many young women today, especially (but not necessarily only) women of color. Have you been asked to speak at schools or other organizations? If so, what kind of message do you bring to such meetings?
SW: Ive spoken at so many schools and so many churches and various organizations, and I love to speak to young people and also to women. I try to bring a message of hope and inspiration when I speak to various groups; I think the messageand it sounds clichis that you can truly do and be anything you want to be. A lot of times, especially in the African-American community, we dont see people who have that objective certainly you dont see them to the extent that you can talk to them and reach out and touch themso to go to a school and to just be there and be able to answer any questions is just so rewarding, and there are so many different occasions when Ive left and heard I want to be a judge too. I never wanted to be a judge; I never even knew of the option of being a judge when I was younger; so, if for nothing else, I think it leaves people with a real ray of hope that it can be done, it is an option, and just keep striving. It goes not only for young kids, but women in law school.
LICN: Do you find it hard to separate politics from the law?
SW: Not at all. I think politics always exists, but I dont have any problem in separating the two.
LICN: What do you see as some of the most critical issues confronting us: locally, nationally, internationally?
SW: I would say certainly nationally drugs. The sale and use of drugs, gang violence and they almost are intertwined with each other guns and that sort of thing. Its a real issue and one that I think many people are struggling with because its very difficult to deal with.
LICN: We seem to be shielded from that locally.
SW: We certainly dont have gang violence and that, especially when you go to the urban areas, is just extremely prevalent and just out of control. Were in a cocoon.
LICN: What do you envision for the future of our community? Is there anything youre looking forward to or concerned about?
SW: Im looking forward to the open reception of people of all ethnicities; thats one of the things that I like about this area; that it does have some real diversity, and I think thats important. Its important because we all learn from each other, and we all benefit from each other. If we think we dont, weve already lost.
LICN: Do you have any plans to go into politics?
SW: None. I have no reason to leave the bench, and I certainly have no interest or intention of ever pursuing politics.
LICN: As a hypothetical question, if you did, is there anything particular you would try to accomplish?
SW: I dont knowI think we could all say I would like to do this and that, but truthfully, trying to implement changes and really effectuate them is not as easy. I can talk about world peace, but I tend to think in the real instead of the abstract.
LICN: What would you say is your biggest challenge?
SW: Time. Having time to do all the thingstime to spend with my family, time to do the work that I feel that I have to do at my office; thats the biggest challengefinding enough time to feel like Ive done all the things I need to do.
Buona Sera in Red Bank
Favorite Musical Artist
Biggest Pet Peeve
Three people who I would like to dine with
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