He’s banged the gavel for the last time.
After 30+ years on the bench over two stints, Thomas D. McKeon has bade farewell as municipal judge of Kearny. His letter of resignation, which took effect Feb. 27, was formally accepted by the mayor and Town Council Tuesday, March 14.
A mandate issued by the state Administrative Office of the Courts prompted his decision to leave, McKeon said. That directive forbids municipal magistrates from also performing legal work for the county going after deadbeat welfare dads due to a potential conflict of interest situation.
McKeon said he’s been holding down the county post for the past four decades but he’s decided to quit that job, too, and take his pension. He was just reappointed to a new 3-year term in November 2022.
Mayor Alberto G. Santos, reportedly in line to become a Superior Court judge, said: “Tom has always demonstrated the utmost professionalism and fairness in performing his duties as municipal judge — he has done so in an exemplary manner. He is a lifelong resident of Kearny who has sought to serve his community and we are very fortunate he has been our community for over two decades.”
“I loved being a judge, helping people, and I’ll really miss working for the town,” McKeon said, “but I had to let it go.”
And, he insisted, “I’m not going to do weddings.”
Nor does he have plans to re-enter the political arena.
After a short time as a member of the Kearny Zoning Board, he ran successfully on the Democratic ticket for a Second Ward seat on the Town Council in 1980 and, after receiving his law degree from Seton Hall University and getting married, he sought re-election but was defeated.
Still, while building his law practice, he maintained a foothold in public service, hired as Kearny’s municipal prosecutor and as assistant Hudson County counsel in 1983. He was named municipal judge of Kearny in 1990 and continued to be reappointed by Democratic and Republic mayors alike. He took a break from 2004 to 2013 when Norman A. Doyle Jr. became the town judge — and then McKeon rejoined the bench from 2013 until last month.
Since he claims he has “no hobbies,” what he will do, instead, is stick to his private law practice, still working out of his Kearny law office at 570 Kearny Ave., with a specialty in bankruptcy issues.
Looking back at his time on the bench, McKeon said his “toughest” cases involved defendants who got parking tickets and who tended to “take them personally, very seriously…. A lot of them would say they parked 11 feet — not 10 (the allowable) feet from a hydrant, for example.”
To try and get them to relax a bit, “I’d say from the bench, ‘Breathe in, breathe out.’”
Parking cases were reserved for one night each month, typically on Mondays, and “we’d do about 30 on average” per session,” he said.
Most other cases were heard Thursdays when, McKeon recalled, “we’d do well over 100 cases” each morning.
McKeon credited “a great staff,” led by court administrator Ana Maria Matos and prosecutor Terry McGuire, with keeping things on course —particularly since the COVID-19 struck, prompting the disruption of in-person court sessions except for those requiring trials where a defendant could lose a driver’s license or go to jail.
Court proceedings conducted over Zoom have led to what McKeon called “a lot of strange viewings” of defendants who appear a bit too relaxed.
“We’ve seen people in pajamas, in bed, in boxers or shorts, or driving a car,” he said, while dealing with the disposition of the complaint they’re facing.
Town Council President Carol Jean Doyle, the governing body’s most senior member and a personal friend of McKeon and his wife, feels “disappointed” about the town losing a valuable civil servant.
“He was a very good judge, fair, he made a difference in our court system where people had respect for the position as well as the man,” Doyle said. “I’ve known Tom and his wife personally for 30 years-plus and I absolutely found him to be dignified on the bench. He’ll be missed. Those are not easy shoes to fill.”
Asked about a replacement, Santos said: “I expect Betsy McNamara, the judge in Harrison and also a West Hudson native, will perform the duties of Kearny municipal judge.”
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Ron Leir | For The Observer
Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.
He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.
He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York