White Plains City Judge Elizabeth (Liz) Shollenberger died Thursday morning at the age of 63.
According to a message circulated by her husband Tim James, she had been in a series of hospitals since June, primarily for respiratory problems, and succumbed to an infection that struck on Labor Day, which she was unable to fight off.
Liz grew up in two small towns in Ohio – Alliance, a steel town, and Circleville, a rural community in the northernmost county of Appalachia, where she attended junior high and high school. But she wanted to make an impact in the wider world, and worked methodically to get there. A teacher gave her a long reading list of books one should know for college . . . and Liz read all of them. She became the co-valedictorian of her high-school class. When she learned that the subjects tested on the math branch of the SAT would include trigonometry, which was not taught in her school, she asked her math teacher to help her learn it. When it turned out that her math teacher did not know trigonometry, Liz got a book and taught it to herself. She ended up with a 1500 on the SAT and became the only student from her school in memory to go to Princeton – where she met, her husband Tim James. At Princeton, Liz earned a grade-point average of 3.9 on her way to Yale Law School.
After working at three highly regarded private law firms in Manhattan during her first years out of law school and teaching for two years at NYU Law School, Liz spent the bulk of her legal career as a Legal Services attorney, representing indigent clients, first in the Bronx, where she became the head of the Housing Unit, and later, of their Senior Unit, and then in Queens, where she headed the public-benefits unit. In Housing Court, Liz loved being the equalizer, altering the imbalance of power that normally exists between low-income tenants (usually unrepresented) and the attorneys for landlords. Armed with her “Housing Court Spanish” (as she called it), a quickly acquired expertise in the substantive and procedural aspects of housing law, and a cheerful but steely willingness to go to trial in any case where she felt the landlord was not being reasonable, Liz became a force in Bronx Housing Court. She knew a lot of ways to win a case, or at least make the adversary settle on terms her client could live with.
Liz got involved in Democratic politics in Greenwich Village in 1981.
In 1983, at age 27, she became the first President of the Village Reform Democratic Club, which she helped to found. In 1986, the small-town-Ohio girl was elected in a primary as Female Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village, representing a district that encompassed about three-quarters of an Assembly District. She held that position for nine years, winning two more primaries and then winning two more terms without opposition. While she was District Leader, she played a significant role in the initial election to Congress of Jerry Nadler, who now chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
In the mid-1990s, Liz decided that she wanted to be a judge. In 1996, she ran for Civil Court in a district that encompassed most of the Village and other parts of Lower Manhattan. She lost the primary by 24 votes out of approximately 7,300 – the closest primary in New York City that year.
She moved to White Plains with her husband in 1999 and immediately got involved with the White Plains Democratic Party. In 2003, she was elected Chair of the White Plains Democratic City Committee, succeeding Adam Bradley, who had been elected to the Assembly the year before. She served as Chair of the City Committee for over 13 years, until her appointment by the Common Council at the end of 2016 to be a City Court Judge.
Knowing Liz through the Democratic City Committee and also supportive of her appointment to the White Plains City Court, Mayor Tom Roach said: “Liz was one of the smartest people I have ever met and she applied that intelligence and her hard won Ivy League education to benefit people in need, whether fighting for individual clients as an attorney or advocating for policies to protect the most vulnerable among us. She was a kind and humble person who made the world a better place and she will be greatly missed.”
Unhappily, as a result of both her health issues and the response to those health issues by the State’s Chief Administrative Judge, who suspended her from working, Liz did not have the opportunity to make much of a mark on the bench – which was a source of great frustration and sadness for her over the past two years. She was engaged in a lawsuit to allow her to return to work. During her periods of enforced idleness, she worked on a book she had long planned to write about her time in Legal Services and the clients she served, did a lot of reading, and took an increased interest in cooking.
Liz had been under nearly constant assault from her own body, for mostly mysterious reasons, for more than 15 years, but never let her persistent health issues affect her cheerful personality or stop her for long from doing the things that she loved.
A memorial service will be held for Liz at a future date to be announced