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Retired Judge Garb dies at age 83

Former president judge handled controversial Point Pleasant pumping station case and trial of William Bradfield in Main Line murders of teacher Susan Reinert and her children.

Retired Bucks County Judge Isaac S. "Zeke" Garb, who presided over the controversial Point Pleasant pumping station case that garnered national attention and the William Bradfield "Main Line Murders" case, died Monday after a brief illness.

Judge Garb, 83, of Buckingham, was still handling settlement conferences, bail hearings and bench warrants until 2 ½ weeks before he died, although state law forced him to retire as a full-time judge at age 70.

"He had a great legal mind," county Court Administrator Doug Praul said Wednesday. "There is no one I have ever heard of who compared to him, or will again.

"He would spread books on his desk and dictate an opinion while barely taking a breath," Praul said. "Then, he'd go on to the next opinion."

Judge Garb stood 5-feet-5 "at his best," daughter Maggie Garb said, but he was a legal giant in the county courthouse and in the state. For 33 years on the bench, including 10 years as president judge, he displayed compassion, toughness, wit, and humor, combined with an occasionally tart tongue and a steely stare.

He frequently intimidated lawyers, prosecutors, defendants, and even colleagues, displaying his mounting impatience by tapping a yellow Ticonderoga pencil.

A plaque in the judges' conference room said, "If you don't know what to do, check the constitutions, check the statutes, and ask Zeke," retired Judge Edward G. Biester Jr. recalled. "That summed up how we felt about him."

Judge Garb was best known for his ruling supporting construction of the Point Pleasant pumping station to take water from the Delaware River for water companies in Bucks and Montgomery Counties and for the Peco Energy Co.'s Limerick nuclear power plant.

In 1983, at the height of the 15-year environmental and political controversy, protesters camped in the lobby of the Courthouse. Many, including the late activist Abbie Hoffman, were jailed for civil disobedience.

"There were contracts, and he went by the law," Biester said. "He decided the pump had to be built."

Pump opponents tried but failed to oust Garb at the polls when he was up for retention.

"It meant he had to campaign," which was unheard of for retention candidates, Biester said. "He fought it out. One time, he and Judge [George T] Kelton, who also was on the ballot, dressed as Mummers and strutted at a fire house."

Also in 1983, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court picked Judge Garb to preside over the trial of Bradfield, who was charged with the 1979 killing of Susan Reinert, an English teacher at Upper Merion High School, and her two children.

Judge Garb sentenced Bradfield to three life terms after a jury found him guilty. Bradfield died in prison in 1998.

Years later, Judge Garb said he was personally opposed to the death penalty.

"It's a moral thing. I don't think a civilized society should kill people,'' Garb said before his retirement.

As president judge, Garb made the county court system one of the most efficient in the state, by taking over the assignment of criminal cases from the District Attorney's office.

"He had a rule, 'No continuances,' " Biester said. "Lawyers would send someone from their office to say they were not ready and to ask for a continuance.  He would say, "Have the lawyer here in an hour, or he's in big trouble."

One of Judge Garb's priorities was Juvenile Court, where he handled cases much of the time.

"He thought troubled kids were worth protecting," Biester said. "The cases were in the interest of the child, not the prosecution."

Each year, the juvenile detention facility had a Christmas party, and Judge Garb went to every one, his former colleague said. "He was a humane person – he really cared about those kids."

Judge Garb grew up in Trenton, where his city sprinting title led to a football scholarship at a Methodist college in Missouri.

"He got his teeth kicked out and broke his hand," Maggie Garb said, so he returned home and graduated from Rutgers.

Judge Garb entered the Army, doing  counterintelligence work in Washington in the early 1950s. "He was chasing spies and Communists in the government," his daughter said.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania law school on the GI Bill, and, after graduation, hitchhiked through Europe and the Middle East for nine months. Back home, he got a job as a defense lawyer for a Yardley law firm.

Garb went on to work as a public defender and in the U.S. Attorney's office in Philadelphia, before resigning to run for the state Assembly in 1962.

"He ran with James Michener," Maggie Garb said. "It was a suicide ticket – Democrats never won in Bucks County."

In 1966, Garb was appointed to the county court, where he served until he was forced by state law to retire in 1999.

"He was a realist who believed in justice and fairness," his daughter said. "He realized the system failed at times, but it was the way to bring about change."

Besides the law, Garb's passions were his vegetable garden, the Metropolitan Opera, and the N.Y. Yankees.

He and Joan, his wife of 47 years, met on a blind date in New York in their early 30s. She died in 2009.

He is survived by three children, Maggie, Emily and Charlie, and a granddaughter, Eva.

A memorial service for family and friends is scheduled for Saturday at his home. No public funeral is planned.

"My parents were devout atheists," Maggie Garb said. "His ashes will be spread in his vegetable garden."