Whether through his work on the bench or in Iraq, Stephen Orlofsky is driven by a need to serve
Published in 2005 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on April 26, 2005
Updated on August 21, 2015
Walking around his spacious modern office at Blank Rome in Cherry Hill, Stephen Orlofsky points at an assortment of framed photographs, plaques, awards, brass eagles, collectibles and golden gavels. He wears a conservative blue suit and his eyes are sharp and warm. He stops to take in one particularly meaningful image.
“Here is my good friend Pinky Durham, who is one of the subjects of David Maraniss’ book They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace in Vietnam and America October 1967,” he says. “We met and became close friends when we were both in officers candidate school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma,” Orlofsky says, his voice cracking, of the soldier who posthumously won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
A former captain in the Army who served in Vietnam, Orlofsky settles into his high-back executive chair and swivels behind his desk looking like the federal judge he once was. He gazes out his office window at the impeccably cared-for lake and surrounding landscape designs and ponders the meaning of service. Like his good friend, it’s a subject he knows well.
To Iraq and Back
Orlofsky has had many highlights in his career — among them his seven-year tenure as U.S. district judge for New Jersey — but he says nothing can measure up to his work in Iraq. In 2003 he traveled to the war-torn country as part of a 13-member team jointly commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of State to assess the country’s judicial system.
Before the ousting of Saddam Hussein, lawyers in Iraq worked under a corrupt judicial system filled with dishonest judges. Today, Orlofsky says, things are unfortunately not much better. “The courthouses were all looted and there are still judges who were appointed by Saddam,” he says. “We met some decent lawyers but many of them are hacks.”
Orlofsky spent six weeks in Iraq conducting interviews and gathering information. While there, he battled intense heat (upwards of 130 degrees), dysentery, spartan living conditions and lax security when they were away from their U.S. Army support. But perhaps most traumatic were the things he saw.
The team visited not only courthouses, but also jails and even one of the dictator’s mass graves. “Hundreds of Iraqis had been buried here, some plowed over alive,” he says. “There were family members at the site and they were on their hands and knees digging through the dirt looking for the remains of their loved ones.”
He found the people friendly, but he quickly learned of the dangers of the fractured country. “Several Iraqis were assigned to help us,” he recalls, “and one of them was a female lawyer who I won’t name. The insurgents targeted her and once we knew this we worked to get her out of the country. We got her as far as Jordan but then we had to go back to the States and we weren’t allowed to put her on the plane with us. The insurgents killed her father.”
Eventually, through the dedication and hard work of Orlofsky and members of the team, as well as several Blank Rome staffers, the woman and her brother were allowed to relocate to the United States. “I’m very thankful to the Americans, they protected me and they saved my life,” she says, in quiet, emotional broken English over the phone from an undisclosed location.
A young paralegal, not licensed to practice law here in the United States, she speaks with great affection for those who helped her. “They got me anything I needed, food, a place to stay. You cannot understand my feelings. Nobody can understand what I lost, the value of my father. But I am more and more appreciative of Judge Orlofsky and the others who got me to America.”
From Yankee Stadium to a Seat on the Bench
How did this boy from the Bronx end up serving on the bench in New Jersey and serving as an expert judicial authority in Iraq? To hear Orlofsky describe it, he owes his success to the example set by his grandparents.
When President Clinton nominated him to the district court in 1995, there was a ceremony attended by Orlofsky’s family members and friends. When it was his time to talk, he mentioned his grandfather. “President Truman once said that you should never forget who you are, how you got where you are and where you came from,” he said. “You should know that I am the grandson of immigrants who came to this country early in this century with the hope and fervent expectation that with hard work they, their children and grandchildren would some day be able to participate in the American dream. Perhaps the defining experience of my grandfather’s life was the day he arrived in New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty.”
Growing up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Orlofsky graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1961 and attended City College of New York. He later was drafted into the Army and served one tour of duty in Vietnam. He returned and enrolled in law school at Rutgers University in Camden. Upon graduation he took a clerkship for Chief Judge Mitchell H. Cohen. “He was my mentor, and he told me what it was like to be a judge and how I should conduct myself,” Orlofsky says.
He served as South Jersey’s first full-time magistrate judge from 1976 through 1980. An accessible workaholic who could be reached in his chambers at all hours, Orlofsky wrote 195 opinions that have been published for citations in other cases. “I always loved the interactions between lawyers, witnesses and jurors,” he says.
After his stint on the bench, he joined Blank Rome and worked there for 16 years, until President Clinton made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Orlofsky’s reputation during his time on the U.S. District Court was one of level-headed fairness. “I had no agenda and I was aligned with neither the right nor the left,” he says. “Most of my cases, when appealed, were upheld but a few weren’t. That’s life, you move on.”
While amiable and approachable, he did not suffer unprepared lawyers lightly. In one well-known case, Orlofsky fined a Cherry Hill litigator $58,000 for pursuing a baseless reverse-discrimination case. “When that happened, I got calls from lawyers all over the country who supported what I did,” he says.
Jay Greenblatt of Greenblatt & Laube is one lawyer who experienced the disciplined thinking of Orlofsky. “I met Steve Orlofsky when he was a U.S. magistrate in Camden,” he remembers. “In 1977, I was involved in a large employment discrimination case being managed by him. The attorneys opted to allow the matter to be tried by the U.S. magistrate as a non-jury case, which began in September and lasted until December. The issues were several and the facts complex. Judge Orlofsky handled the matter in an exemplary fashion and, upon the conclusion of the case, wrote an opinion that intellectually satisfied all parties.”
Today, at Blank Rome, Orlofsky remains a man of influence. Fred Blume, the firm’s managing partner and CEO, has known Orlofsky for many years. He says the judge’s stature extends well beyond New Jersey. “While Steve is being recognized here for his accomplishments, his practice is national,” Blume says. “He is very knowledgeable of and deeply involved in complex litigation in the state and federal courts, both at the trial and appellate levels, and alternate dispute resolution (ADR).”
And, of course, public service is never far from Orlofsky’s mind. He makes time for pro bono work and serves on a variety of boards and committees (he is currently one of three commissioners on the New Jersey Commission on Uniform Legislation).
Outside of the law, Orlofsky spends nearly all of his free moments with his family: wife, Charlotte Gaal, who “is also a lawyer and has a more important job than I do” (she is the deputy director of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation); their children, Deborah, a speech therapist; David, a CPA; and Alex, a freshly minted lawyer; and assorted grandchildren. One of the casualties of his time in Iraq was that he missed Alex’s graduation ceremony from the University of Miami Law School. “At least I have the video,” he says wistfully.
Orlofsky is clearly comfortable with his position at Blank Rome and within the community. As well he should be. He absorbed well the lessons of his mentors and has devoted his life to helping others. And today there is an Iraqi woman pursuing her American dream in the same way his grandfather, and Pinky Durham, taught him to pursue his.