[Written by Audrey Golden, based on her own research and an interview with Judge Bissell that she conducted in July 2010.]
Retired Judge John Winslow Bissell presided over the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey from 1982-2005 after being nominated by then-President Reagan, and he served as Chief Judge from 2001 until the end of his tenure. Prior to serving as a federal judge, Bissell was employed in private practice from 1966-69 and 1972-78, first as an Associate and later as a Partner. He also acted as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of New Jersey from 1969-71.
Bissell graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1958 and went on to earn his B.A. from Princeton in 1962, followed by an L.L.B. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1965. Subsequent to his retirement from the Court, he entered private practice at Connell Foley as Counsel, where he continues to serve both as Chair of the firm's Alternative Dispute Resolution Department and as a member of the Business Litigation practice group. Although Bissell considers his work in private practice to require expertise and skills distinct from those he honed as a federal judge, he has emphasized that his role as an adjudicator nonetheless provided for an efficient shift to his current function within arbitration and mediation processes. He has reflected particularly on the translatability of the skills of an adjudicator—hearing witnesses, reading evidence, drawing conclusion and explaining it in writing—to those of an arbitrator. The dynamic does shift vastly, however, between adjudicating, arbitrating, and mediating. Through arbitration and mediation, Bissell indicated that he has "polished a different set of techniques" from those sharpened through nearly twenty-five years on the bench.
The papers in this collection, representing decisions from the entirety of Bissell's tenure on the bench, provide significant insight into the workings of a busy urban federal court. Due to its inner-city setting in Newark, New Jersey, the Court decided a substantial number of cases involving antitrust and bank fraud issues, major drug prosecutions, and federal securities laws. Bissell's Court represents one of three federal trial courts in New Jersey, with the remaining two located in Trenton, the state's capital, and Camden. While the court's physical location may have impacted the types of cases adjudicated, as a federal judge Bissell ruled on cases in which the demography of vicinage was very diverse, encapsulating jurors, attorneys, and even parties to the actions from a wide range of urban, affluent suburban, and rural regions. Bissell noted that, while the courthouse was situated in a large-city locale, the district from which his cases arose stretched across the northern part of the state of New Jersey. As a result, jurors were pulled from city centers such as Newark and Jersey City, but also from many smaller rural towns along the Delaware River and out to Phillipsburg, as well as suburbs like Morristown in the very northern part of the state housing wealthy New York City-area commuters. Bissell reflected that his Court's jurors arrived from a relatively small geographic area, but an immensely varied demography. Similarly, Bissell's Court saw many attorneys from these representative areas, as well as those admitted pro hac vice from organizations and firms throughout the nation, appearing in the District of New Jersey on one-time bases for specific actions being tried. While attorneys hailed from a wide geographic distribution, the parties, too, originated from assorted locales, including those both national and international. In part, this range of parties was a result of their appearances within a federal trial court, as Bissell frequently heard diversity actions that otherwise would have been adjudicated within a state court. At the same time, however, the nature of the cases also led to the notable diversity of participants, as many of the commercial actions concerned business groups and companies throughout the United States and abroad.
Trends over time in the variety of cases contained within these papers likely are reflective of those nationally, displaying an increased number related to employment-law litigation, in particular employment-discrimination cases pertaining to race, age, and gender. Gradually more parties began to bring actions under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), while the 1990 and 1993 passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), respectively, also led to increased employment-discrimination litigation. Bissell reflected that this trend also impacted some of his later decisions as he became more sensitive to individual conduct, the thwarting of equal protection, and other discriminatory practices affecting society. These cases range from race, age, and gender discrimination in police departments and government agencies to those arising from a variety of large and small private-business actions. The papers in this collection showcase an increased number of cases concerning rights-based litigation, in general. In addition to discriminatory employment practices, in the later years of Bissell's tenure, a large number of decisions concerning employment benefits were litigated, which is reflected in the numerous cases to which the Social Security Administration was a named party.
The decision of which Bissell is most proud concerns 21st-century race discrimination in the workplace. In this 2005 case, Lomack v. City of Newark, the former judge affirmed a lower court decision to integrate firehouse shifts in a Newark fire department, a place of employment that was widely segregated as a product of de facto segregation. Although his decision later was reversed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Bissell noted of his contrary conclusion, "I feel very proud of this decision." At the same time, he noted how this case, in particular, reflects his own growing concern with civil rights issues in his later years on the bench. When asked whether he would have decided the same way if the case had come to him in 1983 instead of 2005, his "inkling was probably not."
While many of the cases in this collection remain unpublished, their significance for legal and historical research in future years is unmistakable. In addition to providing a historical record of general urban-court practices in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Bissell hopes that these papers also will make clear the prevalence of judicial impartiality at the trial level and the significance of trial-court rulings generally, matters that frequently are not paid significant attention due to the academic and legal focus on appellate decisions and their inner-court workings. He has indicated that the social and political views of an individual judge should never hold a position in the adjudication process. The conscientious trial judge, Bissell noted, dedicates himself to deciding a case on its own merits both in terms of the facts involved and the law that applies; the role of a judge is not to ventilate or to inflict upon the parties involved a political, social, or sociological point of view. That has "no place there," Bissell indicated. He also reflected that his papers should produce for researchers both a sense of what it was like to be working as a federal trial court judge during this time span, along with the "products of a judge who, like almost all of them, calls them as he sees them without any baggage overlay." If his body of work helps to demonstrate these issues to both contemporary and future researchers, the now-retired judge indicated that he "would be very satisfied."