Michael Patrick King, 82, New Jersey appellate judge whose writings shaped landmark cases

Michael Patrick King, 82, of Haddonfield, a longtime New Jersey appellate judge whose crisply worded opinions profoundly affected the fabric of life in the Garden State and beyond, died Saturday, Nov. 25, of Parkinson’s disease at his home.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
Judge Michael Patrick King

Over three decades, starting in 1972, Judge King accepted a series of appointments that culminated with his 1977 assignment to the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division. (The appellate division screens and rules on most appeals, and saves the most important ones for the attention of the state Supreme Court.)

Judge King wrote more than 400 published opinions before retiring in 2005. The rulings were rigorously researched and succinctly written, and most stood the test of time.

He was reversed only 27 times from 1977 until 2002, for a 93 percent affirmance rate, wrote legal journalist Ronald J. Fleury in a judicial profile.

“The reality is that he was rarely reversed and highly respected,” said Edwin H. Stern, Judge King’s friend and former colleague on the Appellate Division.

The best examples of Judge King’s wisdom and winning demeanor came in two high-profile cases, Stern said. In one, he was a judge on the appellate bench; in the other, he had retired but was brought back as a special master to make recommendations.

“You couldn’t be more respected than to be the person selected to hear those matters and make the record,” Stern said.

The first was Abbott v. Burke, the landmark education-parity case challenging the way in which school districts are funded in New Jersey. The plaintiffs, the nonprofit Education Law Center, had argued successfully that urban school districts were not receiving funding and programming commensurate with wealthier suburban districts, as guaranteed by law.

Judge King was tapped by the New Jersey Supreme Court to hold hearings and issue a report on whether 1996 state legislative mandates for education were being met. If not, he was to recommend what should be done to meet them. His 1998 report suggested unprecedented reforms. Some parties liked them, others did not.

He called for: full-day prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds; full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds; summer school for pupils lagging their peers; and school-based health and social services for students from difficult backgrounds.

In addition, he advocated for improved school buildings; access to technology; added security in school buildings; and an accountability system to ensure that reforms were implemented uniformly.

Although litigation continues and funding has been in question, the bulk of Judge King’s findings remain in place, Stern said.

In State v. Chun, a drunken-driving case filed in 2005, the defendant argued that blood-alcohol readings being placed in evidence in county court were inaccurate. After losing, the defendant appealed the verdict. More than 10,000 DWI cases remained in legal limbo in New Jersey while the case was on appeal.

Judge King was asked to research whether the then-new Alcotest breathalyzer equipment used by police in traffic stops was scientifically reliable for blood-alcohol readings. He concluded that it was, but cautioned that the devices should be used with adjustments and discretion.

In March 2008, based on his recommendations, the Supreme Court ruled that, with certain safeguards in place, the testing device was sound.

“This was not only of great significance to New Jersey, but also nationwide, because it was the first test of the reliability of the device,” Stern said.

Judge King progressed from Camden County Court to the appellate division bench. Earlier, starting in 1960, he had been a partner in Kisselman, Deighan, Montano, King & Summers, of Camden, specializing in civil law.

Born in Camden in 1934, Judge King graduated from Haddonfield Memorial High School in 1952. He earned an undergraduate degree from Fordham University in 1956, and three years later completed a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the 1980s, he earned a master’s degree in judicial studies from the University of Virginia.

Former law clerks said he was a stern taskmaster. But his style on the bench was relaxed, friendly, and sometimes self-deprecating. “He is a low-key questioner,” journalist Fleury wrote.

Professor Robert F. Williams of Rutgers Law School in Camden said Judge King made a big mark on the legal profession through his mentorship of young lawyers. Many fledgling lawyers, especially women, were given access to the field by serving as his law clerk.

“He was worshipped by these students because, in effect, he continued their legal education after they left law school. He taught more than one generation of young lawyers writing and legal analysis,” Williams said.

“One could argue that his role as a teacher was equal to his role as a judge,” said his wife, Jane Gifford King.

Outside the courtroom, Judge King was active in community affairs. He coached Little League and served as counsel to the Haddonfield Planning Board from the mid-1960s until his appointment to the bench. He was an avid reader and had a wonderful sense of humor, his family said.

In addition to his wife of 57 years, he is survived by children Stacey, Gifford, and Matthew King, and Jenny Dembergh; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at noon Friday, Dec. 8, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 401 Kings Highway N., Cherry Hill. Burial is private.

Memorial donations may be made to Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice, 5 Eves Dr., Suite 300, Marlton, N.J. 08053.