|Judge Zito in the "boiler room" with Secretary Anne Goetz|
"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.