Professor James Herbie DiFonzo 1953-2017
If there is one quality that immediately comes to mind when I think of my dear friend and cherished colleague, Professor Herbie DiFonzo, it is: kind. He was, of course, a first-rate intellect, a phenomenal professor, an educator par excellence, a passionate and committed advocate for children and families in crisis. But to me, the essence of the man, the one characteristic that stands above all others, is his “do unto others…” kindness.
I first met Professor DiFonzo when I was Chief Administrative Judge and he came to my office with Professor Andrew Schepard to discuss an initiative. His sincerity, his openness and his enthusiasm were infectious. He was the ultimate what-you-see-is-what-you-get individual, a person one both likes and respects from the get-go. It is said that first impressions are deceiving and frequently wrong; Herbie DiFonzo was certainly the exception to that rule. To meet him was to like him; to know him was to love him.
When I came to Hofstra as executive director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law, it was a relief and a treat to see Herbie’s smiling face in my office as soon as I arrived, and I knew from the start that he was someone I could always count on, someone who would tell me like it was (whether it was what I wanted to hear or not), someone who was always willing to pitch in. I would come to treasure his sharp mind, quick wit, corny jokes and enviable ability to simultaneously see both the comedy and tragedy of the human condition. Herbie liked people, and he felt for them, and people liked Herbie.
He wrote of no-fault divorce well before it was the law of this state, and complained of divorce laws that were more about rewarding the “innocent” and “punishing the guilty” than the children caught in the middle. He wrote extensively about the “tender years” doctrine for deciding child custody, and its replacement with the “best interests of the child” standard.
He skillfully cast the child custody debate as the dilemma of Odysseus, who had to navigate a narrow strait between a sea monster and a whirlpool to find his way home (see “Dilemmas of Shared Parenting in the 21st Century: How Law and Culture Shaped Child Custody,” 43 Hofstra L. Rev. 1003).
He noted that the changing family structure “means that marriage has become an optional arrangement for creating a family,” and asked, “How did this happen?” (see, “How Marriage Became Optional: Cohabitation, Gender, and the Emerging Functional Norms,” 8 Rutgers J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 521) Along with his late wife, and longtime collaborator, Ruth C. Stern, he co-authored the book Intimate Associations: The Law and Culture of American Families in 2013. Both were astute observers of modern family dynamics.
When it came to family law, Professor DiFonzo had one non-negotiable absolute: children come first.
I really don’t know where that passion for children and families came from, and now wish that I had asked. He was madly in love with his wife and soulmate and mourned Ruth’s memory daily. He spoke often and lovingly of his son, Drew. But his passion was such that I sometimes wondered if there was something in his life or something he witnessed that branded the needs of children into his psyche for all time. Perhaps, but I am more inclined to believe that it stemmed simply from his innate, ingrained, huge-hearted kindness, and his unwavering sense of fairness and justice.
James Herbie DiFonzo was born in Buenos Aires and raised in New York City. He received a B.S in Sociology from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, and J.D., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. Following graduation from law school, he served as an Attorney General’s Honors Law Graduate at the United States Department of Justice.
He spent two decades in the trenches — federal prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, practitioner in family law and negligence — and conducted more than 30 jury trials, argued dozens of appeals and co-authored two successful merit briefs that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, all before coming to the Maurice A. Deane School of Law in 1995.
At Hofstra, Professor DiFonzo taught courses in family law, civil procedure and alternatives to litigation. He also served as Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Director of the Criminal Justice Clinic, and Director of the LL.M. Program in Family Law. He was a co-reporter for two national family law projects, including the Shared Parenting Project, sponsored by the Association of Families and Conciliation Courts (with Professor Marsha Kline Pruett), and the Family Law Education Reform (FLER) Project, a nationwide effort to improve family law teaching. Along with Professor Mary E. O’Connell, he received the 2006 Stanley Cohen Distinguished Research Award. His students voted him Professor of the Year in 2017.
Professor DiFonzo’s contributions to family law and this institution are truly impressive, and I know legions of alumni benefit every single day from what he taught them about the law and about life. He brought out the best in his students, and I think he brought out the best in his colleagues as well.
But I will most remember Herbie DiFonzo for his sincere devotion to the most basic and fundamental principle of all — the Golden Rule. We can’t all have his intellect or his passion, but we can all strive to live by his example and treat others as we would want to be treated. Let’s all try to do that, in honor of Herbie.
This tribute, originally published in Volume 56, Issue 1 of the Family Court Review, has been reprinted by permission of the Family Court Review, Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFFC) and Wiley-Blackwell.