Former New Jersey judge who aimed to increase diversity on the bench dies at 75

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A former New Jersey judge who helped create an organization to address the needs of Black students, graduates and practicing attorneys after the Newark, New Jersey, riots in the late 1960s has died.

Betty Lester, 75, who presided in the Essex County Superior Court and the Newark Municipal Court, died Sunday.

According to, she was a student at Rutgers Law School when she co-founded the Concerned Legal Associates, which later became the Garden State Bar Association.

Lester was also one of five women in the inaugural class of the Minority Student Program, which said was Rutgers Law School’s response to the lack of law students of color after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the Newark riots, a five-day civil disturbance in 1967 that injured hundreds and resulted in more than two dozen deaths.

Savannah Potter-Miller, a former administrative law judge in Georgia who was in the program, told that Lester went on to fight “the battle of the lack of Black lawyers serving as judges and the lack of women lawyers serving as judges.”

After graduating from Rutgers Law School in 1971, Lester worked in the public defender’s office. According to, she became the presiding municipal court judge in Newark in 1977 and a superior court judge in Essex County in 1985. She served in this role until 2009.

Lester was the first Black woman to serve as presiding judge in the criminal division, a role that she had from 1996 to 1999.

Thomas Ashley, a Newark lawyer who was involved with the Concerned Legal Associates, told that they sought to increase the number of Black judges to increase trust in the judicial system.

“I can certainly say when people saw an African American woman as a judge, it gave them more confidence in the system,” Ashley said.

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