Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Judge Sylvia Pressler, Who Opened Little League to Girls, Dies at 75

Judge Sylvia Pressler


The New York Times; February 16, 2010

Sylvia B. Pressler, whose 1973 ruling as a hearings officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights opened the door for girls to play Little League baseball, and who later rose to be the presiding administrative judge of the state’s Appellate Division, died Monday at a family cottage in Sparta, N.J. She was 75, and her primary residence was in Englewood, N.J.

Her husband, David, confirmed her death. The specific cause was uncertain, but his wife had lymphoma, he said.

Judge Pressler was an especially prolific jurist, the author of hundreds of opinions in 31 years on the bench.

In 1995, she extended the legal rights of gay couples in a ruling that allowed a woman to adopt her partner’s 3-year-old twins.

“They function together as a family,” Judge Pressler wrote of the two women, who had lived together for 14 years. “The twins are, by reason of upbringing, daily lives and ties of mutual affection, the children of both Mary and Hannah, and no court order granting or denying the adoption will change that.”

In 2004, three years before the New Jersey Legislature abolished capital punishment, she ruled that the state’s procedures for carrying out the death penalty were insufficient to guarantee the rights of the condemned and that they had to be re-examined before the state could perform another execution by lethal injection.

“It is one thing for proponents and opponents to talk about capital punishment as an abstract proposition,” Judge Pressler wrote. “It is quite another to see it carried out.”

But she was best known for her decision in the Little League case, which she made before she was elevated to the bench. This was in 1973, when discrimination cases in New Jersey were heard by the Division of Civil Rights before government-appointed examiners, of which Sylvia Pressler, then a lawyer, was one.

The previous year, a 12-year-old girl, Maria Pepe, had played three games for a Hoboken Little League team before national Little League officials learned of her participation and threatened to revoke the local league’s charter if she continued to play. The National Organization for Women brought suit on behalf of the girl and all others in New Jersey. Ms. Pressler’s ruling in favor of them was upheld by the New Jersey Appellate Court, and in 1974 Little League Baseball agreed to allow girls to play on its teams and to start a softball division especially for girls.

“The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie,” she wrote in her ruling. “There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”

Sylvia Diane Brodsky was born in New York City — either in Upper Manhattan or the Bronx, her husband said — on April 10, 1934, and grew up in the Bronx. (Professionally, she used the initial of her maiden name as a middle initial.) Her parents were Jewish immigrants, her mother from what is now Belarus and her father, who came to New York via Argentina, from what is now Poland. For a time he was an owner of a parking garage; he died when his daughter was a young girl.

Judge Pressler graduated from Hunter College High School in Manhattan and then attended Queens College before transferring to Boston University, where her future husband was in school, and where she received a bachelor’s degree. Her law degree was from Rutgers School of Law — Newark. Before becoming a hearings examiner, she worked in private practice and was the Englewood city attorney.

She was named to the bench in Bergen County Court in 1973 by Gov. William T. Cahill; Gov. Brendan T. Byrne appointed her to the state’s Superior Court in 1976, and she was assigned to the Appellate Division the following year. In 1997 she was named presiding judge for the administration of the Appellate Division. She retired in 2004.

Judge Pressler was at the center of a controversy in 1983, when a state senator, Gerald Cardinale, invoked the privilege known as senatorial courtesy to block her reappointment to the Superior Court. Mr. Cardinale claimed that she lacked a judicial temperament, but the Senate overwhelmingly approved her reappointment anyway, after it was disclosed that Mr. Cardinale had appeared before Judge Pressler as an unsuccessful litigant.

In addition to her husband, whom she met in 1953 when both were working as waiters at a Jersey Shore hotel, she is survived by a daughter, Jessica Pressler of Tenafly, N.J.; a son, Noah, of Englewood; and three grandchildren.

“She was not a good waitress,” her husband said in an interview on Tuesday. “She was very good at other things — almost everything else.”

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