By Ron Leir
After 27 years on the bench, Belleville Municipal Court Judge Frank J. Zinna is calling it quits.
June 30 will be Zinna’s last day on the township payroll.
Zinna was coming up for reappointment to another three-year term but, in a surprising development, the judge submitted a letter of resignation last month which was accepted by the governing body.
Karen Smith, who serves as Belleville’s alternate judge, will take over Zinna’s duties. She’ll preside over day court sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and night sessions every other Wednesday – at least for now.
Zinna’s departure comes on the heels of the township’s suspension of Municipal Court Administrator Cheryl Jeannette and her replacement, effective April 1, by part-time Interim Administrator Kathleen Laudicini at $35 an hour for 20 hours per week.
Neither the township nor the New Jersey Division of the Courts would disclose any information about the matter, saying it was confidential. Zinna said he couldn’t discuss it, either.
“It’ll be sad to see him go,” said Township Manager Kevin Esposito, referring to the departing judge. “But I guess everyone has the right to kick back, especially someone who’s served the township 40 years.”
Zinna has been a township employee for the past four decades: After getting a B.S. degree in business from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1968 and a law degree from Seton Hall Law School in 1972 (he graduated cum laude and was associate editor of the Law Review), he was hired as counsel to the Belleville Zoning Board of Adjustment for a year.
He moved on to assistant township attorney, serving in that post from 1975 to 1979, then township attorney from 1979 to 1986, before his appointment as chief judge in 1986.
He also chaired the Nutley Juvenile Conference committee from 1973 to 1979 and was assistant counsel to the N.J. State Senate from 1982 to 1986.
In 1973, he joined a Nutley law firm now known as Piro, Zinna, Cifelli, Paris & Genitempo where he is a partner and where, he says, he will continue the private practice of law.
However, at the same time as he quits the Belleville bench, Zinna said he’ll also be severing his ties as presiding judge for the municipal courts of Morris and Sussex counties, a position he’s held since 1993.
“I’ll be 68 in June,” Zinna said. “There’s a lot of time and travel involved visiting courts [in Morris and Sussex], traveling to Trenton for meetings, and that’s time away from my personal practice. At 69, it’s the right time to get out gracefully. … And I won’t be getting up in the middle of the night anymore to take care of [applications for] restraining orders.”
By shedding his judicial responsibilities, Zinna said he’ll also have more time for his family. “My wife and I have three grandkids,” he noted.
Asked how life in the halls of justice has changed during his judicial tenure, Zinna said: “It’s changed dramatically. Since I first started as presiding judge, 22 years ago, the municipal courts have elevated themselves with training.”
Zinna should know. He’s been vice chairman of the New Jersey Supreme Court Practice Committee for Municipal Courts since 2008, a member of the Conference of Presiding Judges for Municipal Courts (and former chairman) since 1992, and has co-chaired, since 2011, the Comprehensive Judicial Orientation Program Committee.
Zinna said he and his colleagues “finalized a program for orienting new municipal court judges – first, they must be trained by a presiding judge, sitting with us for a minimum of three hours, then there are four-day training periods where we visit their courtrooms.”
Beyond that, Zinna said, there are several annual conferences that all judges must attend. The most recent one focused on case management and, in particular, relieving DWI cases that tend to be backlogged, he said.
“When I first started practicing law,” Zinna recalled, “in one jurisdiction in Sussex, the bench was, literally, a folding table in a hallway. You just don’t find that sort of thing, anymore.” Today’s courts are typically outfitted with “sound recordings and some form of security.”
Belleville Municipal Court’s annual case volume has grown to “about 20,000 cases,” Zinna estimated. A good proportion of those cases tend to be drug-related and DWI matters, he said. “Karen [Smith] and I work hard to maintain a minimum backlog.”
“We just got a grant for training purposes that’s earmarked for municipalities that are close to big cities [like Newark, for example] and geared toward the handling of drug cases,” Zinna added.
And, the newest development upcoming, based on a recommendation by Zinna and Smith, is the opportunity for defendants found guilty of municipal infractions to pay court-levied fines with plastic.
On April 9, the township governing body authorized advertising for bids for the “private collection of electronic credit/debit card service” for municipal court and for receiving those bids on Thursday, May 9, at 11 a.m. in the second-floor council chambers at the Municipal Building, 152 Washington Ave.
“We’ve been encouraging [the township] to do it for some time,” Zinna said. “I guess it was just a matter of working out the kinks. Other municipalities in New Jersey have been doing this.”
The plastic option was pitched, Zinna said, for several reasons.
“First, an awful lot of people who end up in court are not carrying sufficient funds to pay a fine but they do have a debit or credit card so they can pay that way. Secondly, it saves the court time setting out a payment schedule. And, also, those courts with that payment option are probably collecting more toward unpaid fines.”