Teaneck Installs First Black Judge
By John Koster, Staff Writer
(From: The Teaneck Suburbanite, December 3, 1979)
An oath-taking ceremony, that was more like a gigantic home coming party welcomed former Deputy Mayor Isaac McNatt back to the Teaneck municipal building last night -- as the township's first black municipal judge.
"People have come up to me and said, 'Gee, it's great that Teaneck has a black judge,' " said Councilmen Bernard Brooks, who is also black. "I disagree. Teaneck has a municipal judge who happens to be black. Let us concentrate on position and not on who the person is or where he happens to live."
The courtly 63-year-old MeNatt, who served eight years on the council and in 1966 became the first black elected to the body, asked to be sworn at the Council chamber instead of the usual site for such inaugurations - the County Courthouse in Hackensack - out of nostalgia. Almost 500 friends attended the ceremony.
"It is something like a homecoming for me to be sworn in this chamber. It brings back memories of earlier days," he said. "We all had the best interests of Teaneck at heart back then, even though we sometimes expressed our interests by voting differently.
"This is a nation of laws, and all of us are supposed to live within the limit of the laws, judges perhaps more than anyone else," McNatt observed, noting wryly that he must give up many of his activities in local politics to avoid conflicts of interests.
McNatt, who served as deputy mayor of Teaneck from 1970 to 1974, has twice been elected president of the Bergen Blacks for Action in Politics, a coalition and lobbying group.
So many people turned out to see McNatt sworn in that there was not enough room in the council chambers. The crowd, predominantly black but including many white well-wishers, spilled out into the hall.
Bergen County Judge Benedict Lucchi administered the oath, filling in for MeNatt's predecessor, Judge Robert Gruen, who was away due to an illness in the family. McNatt said Gruen had cordially invited him to sit in on the bench several times in the past few weeks to get to know the court system.
"If there were a word I'd like to apply to both men [MeNatt and Gruen] it would be integrity," said veteran Councilman, Brad Menkes. "Both are men of wisdom, compassion and humanity."
Genuine as is McNatt's popularity, there were at least two minor undercurrents. Some police officers, who found Gruen fair but lenient, hope that McNatt, who is considered more conservative, will be tougher in convicting municipal offenders.
The second ripple, alluded to by Brooks, centered on complaints by many black residents that Teaneck's predominantly black northeast quadrant is neglected because no council member lives there. McNatt, however, does live in the northeast quadrant, and some people, Brooks said, apparently felt that McNatt's appointment was a sop to the Northeastern community. Brooks disagreed.
McNatt was born in North Carolina in 1916 and served in the Civil Engineer Corps of the Navy during World War II, working on blimp base; in the Caribbean, He received his law degree magna cum laude from St. John's University in Brooklyn. He has a law practice in Teaneck.
The judge's position pays $10,000 a year.