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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, February 09, 2015

Memento Mori Applies to Judges, Too

In ancient times, the greatest honor that could be bestowed on a Roman was the triumph, the very public celebration of a military success involving a parade, executions, orgies and penne pasta. Good times. The man of the hour would be pulled by a four horse chariot, bedecked in gold. But standing right behind him was a slave whose sole job was to whisper two words into the hero's ear. Memento mori. Remember, you are only human. Morning Call reporter Riley Yates played the role of that slave very well in his recent, two-part series on Northampton County courts  Our courts are only human, and could always benefit from a little scrutiny.

In Northampton courts hire daughter of senior judge, Yates reports that Northampton County judges recently hired Alicia Zito, daughter of Senior Judge Leonard Zito, despite a nepotism ban that would prevent Zito from hiring her directly. Retired judge has biggest caseload in Northampton County reports that Senior Judge Leonard Zito handles the lion's share of criminal cases.

Not too far from here,  two Lackawanna County judges recently initiated and participated in a Kids for cash scandal. Like the evil characters in a Charles Dickens' novel, they preyed on our young, strictly out of lucre. They got away with it for years because no one would speak up.  In Washington County, judicial in-fighting resulted in a recent Supreme Court order, relieving a President Judge from her administrative duties. The State Supreme Court has recently lost two justices to scandal and criminal activity. So let there be scrutiny of the judges, too. Memento mori.

But is there something really wrong the Alicia Zito hire? Is there something wrong about assigning one judge to handle the routine and noncontroversial criminal matters? Let's look at these matters.

The Alicia Zito hire.

Forget Judge Zito for a moment and look at Alicia Zito, all by herself. Until very recently, she was Superior Court Judge Jack Panella's Chief Judicial Law Clerk, assisting him in preparing the one to two opinions their busy workload demands. I met her once when I visited Judge Panella, and he spoke very highly of her. Unfortunately for Judge Panella, she plans to join Federal District Judge Edward Smith soon, in what is certainly a step up in her career.

At the same time in Northampton County, President Judge Stephen Baratta has a judicial law clerk about on maternity leave.  He needs someone to replace her sort-term. Bringing in someone who was passed over in the earlier interviews is not an answer, not when someone with Zito's qualifications is available for a few months.

Now there is a ban on judges hiring family members. I also believe that if one judge is conflicted, every judge on that bench is conflicted. So ordinarily, I'd agree that the Zito hire is a bad idea. But given the temporary nature of this appointment, and Zito's experience as a judicial law clerk for Superior Court Judge Jack Panella, this is a no-brainer.

Legally, it can probably be justified by the doctrine of necessity. Highly experienced law clerks who are willing to work just a few months for what seems like a low salary are very rare.

Let me add, as a rule, judges have always been leery of hiring family members, even the sons and daughters of attorneys who practice before them.

If Judge Zito Works Hard, Are Other Judges Lazy?  

If there is one thing I love to do, it's to catch judges goofing off. Over the years, I've caught them deserting the courthouse a few times, and would write gleefully about it. I usually had to correct my posts because I would later learn that they were going to some judicial conference or some judge club meeting somewhere, maybe to try on new robes.

Yates's second story is no revelation. Everyone knows that Judge Leonard Zito is a workhorse. He was that way when he practiced law, too. I'm pretty sure he recently set the record for most arraignments in one day. 48. An arraignment is when a Defendant is formally notified he's in deep shit. Much of the time, especially in minor cases, that's when a Defendant will plead guilty, too. He might even get his sentence.

At the beginning of last year, when John Brown took his oath as Executive, President Judge Stephen Baratta specifically stated this was how the courts planned to use Judge Zito. Seems to me like a pretty good call, especially since it's likely that he will be able to be a Senior Judge for several more years.

The unstated question in the Yates story is whether the rest of the bench is lazy. I'm sure judges are offended at this unstated question, which might explain why Yates has decided to go on paternity leave. But it's a fair question.

Memento mori.

Yates does attempt to answer his unstated question by pointing to what some of the other judges do.

Let me add to that a bit:
  • Judge Beltrami handles the asbestos docket, and conducted a month-long trial last year.
  • Judge Roscioli handles most of the domestic relations cases
  • Judge Giordano handles the Orphans Court, the Michael Ballard murders, and the never-ending Chrin landfill lawsuits
  • President Judge Baratta has completely streamlined Custody Court, eliminating masters and insisting on more judicial involvement.
  • Judges Dally and Baratta have established a Mental Health Court.  
Does this mean all inquiry should end? Absolutely not. The court should always consider questions of efficiency and access to the courts.
  • Does it have too many masters?
  • Shouldn't real judges handle Gagnon I and II hearings, as opposed to court administrators?
  • Should the courts re-institute a Fines and Costs Court to bring in some of the millions in unpaid fines and restitution out there? 
Memento mori.


Anonymous said...

Plenty of family members in the courts and you know it. The incestuous nature of the thing is blatant. You need them now and soft peddle it.

And a Memento Mori, to you too.

Al Dente said...

Does pasta compost? These leftovers are well past their prime in cases like these it's good to have a garbage disposal.

Anonymous said...

Zito saw to it that Gregory is being done al dente style. Word is JG has taken a fancy to the high protein diet, and squeals with delight when dinner is served.

Anonymous said...

so, to recap:

-Alicia Zito is extraordinarily qualified, and serving as a clerk to the Commonwealth Court;
-she is scheduled to become a law clerk on the federal bench, which is the "big leagues" of the law clerking profession;
-she agrees to a temporary assignment at NorCo (which is a step down, in her career hierarchy);

and we're supposed to believe....what? Improper influence? I call Bullshit.

Anonymous said...

How many other counties in the Commonwealth have their own separate "asbestos dockets?"

Anonymous said...

@802. Not uncommon

Bernie O'Hare said...

Most countires have their own docket.

Anonymous said...

The fines and costs court is long overdue. Northampton county used to have a "fines and costs court but decided to turn it over to the administration. The administration told the courts THEN as the administration is telling the courts NOW, that they do not have the legal authority (like the courts) to find these delinquent criminals and collect the fines, fees, and restitution which now totals more than 60 million dollars in Northampton county alone. The system is broke and the only way to fix it is return the "collections" back to the courts. Judge Baratta should insist on this and Council along with the administration should make it a priority.

Anonymous said...

You can't get blood from a stone. But you sure can spend a lot of time, money and effort trying.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'd agree that, in many instances where sentence was imposed long, it makes little sense. But there is no reason why many offenders who have jobs and the means, should be thumbing their noses at the courts.

Anonymous said...

The appearance of impropriety outweighs her excellent qualifications. With her qualifications, she'd easily find work somewhere; without the appearance of nepotism or a conflict.

Anonymous said...

she commuted to harrisburg every day? or philly?

Bernie O'Hare said...

You don't know a great deal about judicial law clerks. I believe Ms. Zito did most of her work (research and writing) out of Judge Panella's Bethlehem chambers. On those occasions where the judges wanted her to hear oral argument, she would then travel. But I doubt she'd be at every argument.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I disagree that there is an appearance of impropriety in the short-term appointment of a well-qualified law clerk to cover for another clerk on maternity leave.

If she were applying to be Judge Baratta's FT Clerk, I'd agree.

Anonymous said...

Really O'Hare?

Memento Mori

Anonymous said...

Of course, Zito will be seeing the Mezz soon...thats why

Peter J.Cochran said...

FINES and COSTS and bail issues should be collected with a vengeance. I would cut off people from even voting and drivers licences in many cases, if I were to make hay of this-- DEADBEATS -PAY UP ! Yes, My card had on it 20 years ago "No Stiff is Too Dead" under my name .The Sheriff could become very popular with the hard working TAX PAYER. This is a program all to itself.You CAN get BLOOD from a rock ,if you look under it.You can get $20MM for sure on the rule of averages.

Bernie O'Hare said...

A perfect example is Tricia mezzaappa. She owes $646.88 as a result of her harassment conviction.She has not paid a dime, but has had money to hire a lawyer to gp to court over her LTCF denial. She is thumbing her nose at the courts.

Peter J.Cochran said...

AND SHE does not stand alone!Bernie, this issue comes done to --HOW DO YOU COLLECT.Well some of your distracted posters think you are wasting time of the Sheriff-I disagree this should be a practical exercise on how to collect county bills.$60 Million Dollars-WOW ,I would love to show somebody how to get started.

Peter J.Cochran said...

Take a typical bail case -Joe Shumakatella gets arrested for braking and entering ,his family obtains his release from Mr. Kowalcheck,nice guy by they way ,however- Mr. S .failed to show for his formal -,and now they owe. Where is our money? Well the parties to the bail release have a trailer on 3 acres in Monroe County where the defendant was caught living . SEIZE IT.Get out there ,study your, subject get everything until debt is satisfied.Others will roll over after press releases about NorCo pursuit of back funds.

Anonymous said...

I think it is very odd, that one day in the paper the Courts are expressing their concerns about some county administration issues and the next day there seems to be a witch hunt. Hmmmm..... The Courts of our county have earned respect and Judge Zito and others are respected not only here but throughout the state and federal Courts. Fair news? Seems like someone's feathers were ruffled.

Khan Noonien Singh said...

Ziti is a dish best served cold.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Mezzacappa, you may have an opportunity to sample plenty of cold dishes soon. You have been charged with a crime. You refuse to cooperate about your car, so I suspect you will be imprisoned bc this cooperation is going to be a condition of bail.