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Chief Justice Stuart Rabner today announced that Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson Jr. will lead the Ocean Vicinage, effective Feb. 1.

Judge Hodgson will succeed Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, who, as first reported here on FAA News, is retiring after more than 24 years on the bench, seven as assignment judge.

“We congratulate Judge Ford on a remarkable career that encompassed all three branches of government, culminating with her impressive contributions to the Judiciary. Judge Hodgson is an exemplary judge with broad experience who is poised to continue the tradition of excellent leadership in the Ocean Vicinage,” Chief Justice Rabner said.

Judge Hodgson was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jon Corzine in 2007. In 2014, Gov. Chris Christie renominated him to the Superior Court. He first served in the family division before moving to the criminal division in 2008. He served in the criminal division until 2015, when he was named presiding judge of General Equity.

“I am honored to have this opportunity to lead the hard-working staff and judges of the Ocean Vicinage and am grateful for Chief Justice Rabner’s confidence in my ability to continue to uphold the exceptional reputation of the Judiciary,” Judge Hodgson said.

Judge Hodgson earned his bachelor’s degree from Stockton State College and a master’s degree from Monmouth University. He received his law degree from Villanova University.

He worked as a law clerk to Ocean Vicinage Civil Presiding Judge Frank R. Buczynski and was in private practice for a year before joining the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in 1997.

He is currently presiding over the New Jersey Attorney General's lawsuit against Jackson Township which alleges that Jackson Township authorities, through ordinances and enforcement actions, violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by using their zoning powers to regulate land use and housing and make it harder for Orthodox Jews to practice their religion and to deter them from moving there.

Judge Ford who will be turning 70 years old, is an attorney and judge, a former prosecutor and jurist, and a politician who served Ocean County in the New Jersey General Assembly.

She is well known as the "go-to reviewer" of Lakewood's land use applications.

Born Marlene Lynch in Yuma, Arizona on February 23, 1954, she attended St. Rose High School in Belmar after her family's relocation to Point Pleasant. In 1976 she graduated magna cum laude from Lakewood's Georgian Court College with a bachelor's degree in history and in 1979 she was awarded a law degree from Seton Hall University Law School.

She married William J. Ford in 1974 and divorced in 1989. In 1998 she remarried Dr. Francis J Kelly.

She first worked as an attorney for a general law practice firm, and later opened her own practice of law in Point Pleasant Beach. She became General Counsel to H. Hovnanian Industries (1986-1988, and 1990 to 1992), a developer that specializes in age related housing. In 1988 she returned to public service as Counsel to the Democratic Delegation to the NJ General Assembly, and served in that capacity until 1990.

In 1983, at 29 years old, she was the youngest woman to be elected to the State Assembly, defeating freshman Republican Assemblyman Warren Wolf.

She served in the Assembly alongside John Paul Doyle who was elected to represent Ocean County in the Assembly in 1973, and re-elected in 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987 and 1989. He was the Majority Leader from 1982 to 1986. (To this day, Mr. Doyle is a land use attorney who often represents Lakewood land use board applications.)

Marlene Lynch was defeated for re-election in 1985 by Republican Robert Singer, but regained her seat in a 1989 rematch with Singer. She lost her seat again in the 1991 Republican landslide.

In August 1985, Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean signed into law the “Ford Act”, a bill sponsored by Ford that allowed residents to deduct property taxes paid from their income tax gross income calculation, resulting in cuts of $60 to $140 on their state taxes. It was at the time the largest tax cut in New Jersey history.

Ford also helped pass a constitutional amendment to state law, which was signed into law by Governor Florio, that extended civil rights protections in housing and employment to people regardless of their sexual orientation, something which was considered a pretty controversial bill at the time.

She was the prime sponsor of 75 bills that were signed into law, including the Domestic Violence Prevention Act of 1991 and the Victims’ Rights Amendment to the NJ Constitution.

During her tenure in the legislature, Judge Ford was a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee; she was chairperson of the Assembly Judiciary Committee and chaired special legislative committees that investigated the problem of missing, abused and neglected children. She also spearheaded a special investigation into environmental contamination of federal military installations.

In 1992, after having lost her bid for re-election to the General Assembly, she was appointed to the Superior Court by Governor James Florio and reappointed with tenure in 1999. She served four years in the Family Division of the Ocean Vicinage, ten years in the Civil Division and in 2006 returned to the Family Division as Presiding Judge in Ocean County. In 2007, Democrat Governor Jon Corzine appointed Ford to serve as Ocean County Prosecutor and in 2013, when Republican Gov. Chris Christie nominated Joseph D. Coronato, a Republican, to the Prosecutor position, Gov. Christie returned Ford to serve as a judge on the family division of Burlington County's Superior Court.

In 2015, she returned home to Ocean County where she was elevated to Assignment Judge (Chief Judge) and where she has served ever since. She replaced Judge Vincent J. Grasso, who retired after 26 years, eight of which were serving as an assignment judge.

In recent years, Judge Ford has become famous as the one who gets to deal with Lakewood land use appeals.

In February 2019 the Lakewood Township Planning Board was poised to begin hearing The Parke application which has since received General Development Plan approval for 257 duplexes (514 units), community buildings, recreational areas, common space, and storm water management facilities on the current Eagle Ridge golf course.

Shortly before the start of the application, the neighboring Fairways HOA appealed to Judge Ford to halt the Planning Board proceeding for one month as their attorney was out of town and they wanted to be properly represented at the Board hearing.

Judge Ford granted the one month stay noting, “there is a substantial impact on the plaintiffs if they are not permitted to participate in a meaningful way tonight... I’m inclined at this point to restrain the hearing for a shortened period of time so it’s not an impact upon the applicant, but secondly to allow the homeowners to, who obviously have an interest in this, to have the opportunity to have a meaningful record developed to affirm their position.”

Last year Judge Ford overturned a Lakewood Township Zoning Board approval of a Use Variance for homes on undersized lots on Spruce Street after the Board refused to postpone the hearing so the neighbors could have the opportunity to retain their own engineer to review the plans.

In December 2021, Judge Ford barred Lake Terrace from hosting concerts, and in September, shut down Bnos Brocha's simcha hall, due to lawsuits that charged they never received Township Zoning Board approval for such uses.

Just last Friday, Judge Ford overturned Lakewood Township Planning Board's approval of Yeshiva Toras Chaim's dormitory expansion, finding that the Planning Board lacked jurisdiction to approve a dormitory which is not a permitted use in residential zones.

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