By JOHN T. WARD
The circumstances and place of his death were not immediately available.
Believed to have been New Jersey’s longest-serving local court jurist in modern times, if not state history, Himelman presided on the borough bench for 38 years. Long past the age at which others in his position retired, he doled out justice to everyone from cellphone-gabbing motorists and drunk drivers to a pair of men who squared off while naked.
In an interview with redbankgreen last year at the Reckless Place offices of Himelman & Himelman, where he was senior counsel, Himelman called himself “the best judge money can buy,” and said he’d have done the job for nothing if officials hadn’t insisted he accept the minimum.
From the bench in the courtroom/council chamber at 90 Monmouth Street most Thursday mornings, Himelman oversaw a cattle call of sorts that often included 175 or more alleged violations: speeding, untended lawns, public urination, spousal abuse and more. The vast majority end in plea bargains, but when there were trials, Himelman said he would “call it the way I see it and I do what I think is right, and that’s it.”
Occasionally, there were lighter moments, such as the case in which two men in a gym steam room got into sprawling fisticuffs when one complained that the other was shaving in violation of gym rules. “Before you know it, you’ve got a couple of bare-assed guys slugging it out on the floor” in full view of onlookers, he said.
Always, though, Himelman said he was mindful of the fact that “a municipal court is where most people have their only court experience. It’s not a joke. You’re dealing with people’s lives. If they’re convicted, that conviction can affect their entire life,” such as whether they get or keep jobs.
He took pains, he said, not to be unduly harsh on defendants, especially those who might get sent to the Monmouth County Correctional Institution because they didn’t have the money to pay fines and court fees. Himelman said he was “hypersensitive,” to the point where some of his acquaintances considered him too much of a pussycat.
“I try to determine what their circumstances are,” he said. “People are shocked sometimes — you know, you live in your own world — but some defendants can only afford $10 a month. There are people like that out there. You have to realize that, and try to work with different people.”
In a statement on his Facebook page, Menna said Himelman “gave due consideration to every individual who appeared before him and generally knew them by name, and had been on the bench long enough to also know their relations. His intelligence was only second to his integrity and his civility.”
Beth Hanratty, a South Street resident who appeared before Himelman on a traffic violation last year, told redbankgreen that she was “impressed” that he took the time with each defendant to make sure they understood the consequences of a plea.
“In one DUI, the woman did not have a lawyer, and he told her she should come back because this could have an impact on the rest of her life,” Hanratty said. “Just overall, his attitude was one of ‘how can we fix this to make it better for all of us?’ versus ‘you screwed up, here’s your punishment sent down from above.'”
Not that he was a pushover. Himelman sentenced motorist Diana Palma to 15 days in jail, to be served on weekends, after a careless driving conviction. The usual outcome in such cases is a maximum $200 fine, without a custodial sentence, but this one had a horrible backstory: the ticket was issued after Palma ran over and killed a pedestrian, Alla Tsiring, at the corner of Broad Street and Bergen Place, in February, 2010.
Himelman’s sentence set off several rounds of appeals, ending when the state Supreme Court ruled in September, 2014 that “careless driving is not a crime but rather a petty offense,” and so the criminal code should not be used in sentencing, as Himelman had wanted to do.
“That woman had four little kids,” Himelman said of Tsiring, clearly troubled by the outcome.
Born in New York City and raised in Belmar, Himelman played both center and linebacker on the 1948 state championship Asbury Park High School football team. He played college ball at Vanderbilt.
In 1957, two years after becoming a lawyer and moving to a garden apartment in Red Bank, he ran for borough council as a Democrat at a time when Republicans had the mayoralty and all six council seats. He was “led by the hand, door-to-door,” he said, by ex-Mayor Katherine Elkus White on his campaign. But like lambs led to slaughter, Himelman and his running mate got trounced on election day, he recalled with humor.
He went on to serve as Democratic chairman in Middletown for seven years, and ran unsuccessfully for state Senate. He also served as a supervisor of elections for Monmouth County and was a deputy state Attorney General. Over 30 years in private practice, many of them with his son, Daniel, he specialized in family and business law.
Himelman was a principal in The Ten Co., a group of 10 local men who chipped in $100 apiece to buy a commercial building in downtown Red Bank, and went on to own several others.
Himelman said he was eating lunch at the Union House on Wharf Avenue one day in 1978 when then-Mayor Dan O’Hern asked him, as a “favor,” to complete the remaining term of the municipal judge, who was stepping down.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll sit for six months and get a kick out of it,'” Himelman recalled. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Actually, he did leave once, retiring several years ago. But “after 30 days of hitting golf balls, I got bored to death and came back to work,” he said.
He also held judgeships in Little Silver and Keansburg. Only once, he said, did a politician ask him to boost borough revenue by imposing more fines on defendants, a request he said he blew off. He declined to say which town that was in, except that it was not Red Bank.
When referring to Himelman, Menna would often describe him as the longest-serving municipal judge in state history, but officials at the state Administrative Office of the Courts said they don’t track such data. Himelman said he didn’t know if Menna’s assertion was true, but “I’ve been told I’m the longest sitting judge” on the bench. “I don’t know of anyone who’s sitting longer.”
A 43-year resident of Lincroft, where he coached Pop Warner football and Little League baseball, Himelman boasted that he was also the longest continuous user of the nearby Brookdale Community College gym, where he worked out two hours a day.
His wife of almost 60 years, Joan Himelman, died in May. He’s survived by his son Daniel, an attorney at Himelman & Himelman; a daughter, Carla; and five grandchildren.
Here’s his obituary.
A funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Bloomfield Cooper Jewish Chapel in Ocean Township. Donations may be made in honor of Judge William Himelman to Memorial Sloan Kettering for Melanoma Research.