Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Judge Leonard Zito: "Everything Has a Beginning and an End"

Judge Zito in the "boiler room" with Secretary Anne Goetz
It's hard to think of anyone more closely connected to Northampton County government than Leonard Zito has been since he first began practicing law in 1971. As a lawyer in Bangor, his hard-hitting style attracted attention from both the public and other lawyers. For many years, he was the man to see if you were from the Slate Belt and had a problem. He's been Chief Public Defender, County Council's Solicitor and was both appointed and then overwhelmingly elected as judge. On the bench, he quickly reorganized criminal court and developed a reputation as the hardest-working judge in the Lehigh Valley. But if you talk to him, he still considers himself an "outlier" from Roseto. "We came from nothing," he said, but is very proud of the "fierce independence" of the Slate Belt and Roseto, in particular. He credits this background as the reason for his success, both as a lawyer and judge. To the dismay of President Judge Michael Koury and his fellow judges, Zito is hanging up his black robe in June to return to private practice.

"Everything has a beginning and an end," he said.

When I met with Judge Zito last week, he welcomed me into a room with a long table decorated, from one end to the other, with numerous papers, open law books, legal pads and pens. "Welcome to the boiler room," he said, and quickly got down to business.

As a lawyer who practiced in Northampton County, he knew there was a problem with criminal court. At that time, about 5,000 criminal cases were filed in court every year. Most would eventually result in pleas, but not before month after month of continuances. Juries would be empanelled, day after day, for cases that never went to trial. Witnesses and victims would make the same trip to Easton, month after month, only to see a case put off.. Judge Zito spoke of mothers and grandmothers who, month after month, would have to find someone to watch their children for pointless trips. He spoke of people who lined the halls during something that was more akin to a cattle call than a day of justice. Defendants charged with minor crimes would languish in a jail that was so overcrowded that inmates were sleeping in hallways

Guess who pays for this? You, the taxpayer. You pay over $100 per day for a Defendant sitting in jail. "You might as well send them to the Hyatt," joked Zito. You pay for the juries that mill around a day or two before being sent home. You pay for the witnesses who come, month after month, for a case that never goes to trial.

Zito said that, no matter where you go statewide, only about five percent of criminal cases go to trial. That means Northampton County could expect about 25 jury trials a year. The rest are pleas. His goal was to clear the clutter, not from his table, but from the courthouse. He did that by encouraging pleas to minor cases on the day of arraignment, the first date that a Defendant appears in court to answer charges.

In previous years, defendants would enter "Not guilty" pleas and start the cycle of month after month of continuances. Zito stopped that practice.

As an example, he mentioned a Defendant who is charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana. "That's a zero to me," he said.

He said more serious cases are assigned to a judge on the day of arraignment so that pretrial issues can be resolved. But most cases are minor.

Last year, Judge Zito disposed on 86% of all criminal cases on the day of arraignment. Some went for alternative disposition. Others were guilty pleas. If a Defendant wanted a trial, he still got one before a judge who knew the details of the case. There were 28 trials last year, jury and nonjury.

Thanks to this system, criminal court is usually over on Monday morning. In addition to bringing swift justice, this has the added benefit of saving you money. But it takes a hard-working judge. One day last year, his court reporter walked into the law library at the end of a long day and nearly collapsed. "We just did 44 guilty pleas," she said.

Zito told me that Judge Kimberly McFadden has him beat. She once did 45.

Before attending the University of Scranton and Villanova Law School, Zito spent four years in the Navy. Not behind a desk but as an Aviation machinist. As a younger man, he and a few friends also raced dirt-modified race cars.

How did he transition from hard-charging lawyer to a thoughtful jurist? His answer is advice he received from Judge Isaac Garb, who before his death was a senior judge in Northampton Count. "Judge Garb told me to check my Italian attitude at the door," he said, and soon learned Garb was right.

"You just can't fight with all the lawyers, there's too many of them," joked Zito.

Where is he going? Zito plans to practice with the Florio and Perrucci law firm, located in Bethlehem.


Anonymous said...

They're so proud of efficiently cranking the handle of the meat grinder that is our local justice system. This post is sickening and disheartening on many levels. Our system is irreparably broken and we're saluting those who participated in the destruction. This is where we are.

Dan Monek said...

Class act man and Judge, a loss to The County. Thank you for years of dedicated Service

Anonymous said...

Anon are probably one of the rotten scum bags that come before a judge several times a year and try to use the system.

Anonymous said...

Ditto 7:09 AM. Also, McClure and his cronies should learn from Judge Zito's example, BUT THEY WON'T SADLY.

Anonymous said...

Move passed the robe gig and you find a mentor, leader, great family man and a respectable gentleman. There is a saying " Don't ask for the man in charge ask for that lady "Anne" who knows what is going on and also tirelessly grinds it everyday. I hope you write about her Bernie

Anonymous said...

must be defense attorneys who have a gripe with this judge. Less time spent means less money earned.

Anonymous said...

This is a great story and it's not even ManCrush Monday!

Anonymous said...

Bernie, maybe Judge Zito can be part of the special investigation of the local Notinstien farce created and carried out by opponiant Wild? These types of defamation suits are a tactik and design of that parties political pandering, like and similar to the Muller nothing burger served to the public for two years now.

Anonymous said...

I wonder when his married daughter will; run for Judge using her maiden name. She did that successfully for the DM job.

Anonymous said...

I knew an Irish camel jockey named Miles O'Piles.

Anonymous said...

The BEST Judge this county will ever have a respectful man and true gentleman. Signed 1941 Chevy Convertible

Anonymous said...

5:58 f-off. She can use whatever name she wants.

Anonymous said...

Ask East Bangor about the Zito/Perrin misuse/abuse and eventual sale of contaminated dirt piles they took in at the quarry. Bet they both made a ton of money on that deal.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like when it comes to trials the Northampton County judge shave a pretty easy time of it. How can you dispose of a case if the defense attorney wants a trial. Sounds like insider baseball where the defendant comes up on the short end of the stick.

Anonymous said...

Pleading is what Lawyers do best. Railroading people just to clear dockets of cases the DA continues to send to the courts. Morganelli is to blame for the crammed dockets that judges and D lawyers wade thru every few days. Tough on crime but the people pay the price of that foolish mantra. JM is a failure and a public opinion chaser and a wannabe politician who has never won an election other than DA.