DISROBED ZAZZALI DAZZLES

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As expected, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali’s black robe came off at Brookdale Community College Thursday. And what was on display, in part, was the Rumson jurist’s wit.

“My wife said have a good day,” Zazzali told a standing-room crowd of about 300. “But I said I had other plans.”

Members of the college’s criminal justice club in particular were thrilled to have the court’s top decider visiting their campus. “This is phenomenal,” said club vice president Dan Burgess, as Zazzali autographed his program.

“We’re used to getting state police and U.S. marshals,” said president Adnan Bomova.

Zazzali admitted beforehand that he was “nervous and a little afraid” about speaking to a general audience there to hear, ostensibly at least, what he had to say about the New Jersey Supreme Court. He said he planned to “put a little different spin” on his remarks than he might, presumably, when addressing a bar association.

Not that he let his hair down completely. The audience repeatedly tossed political hot potatoes such as abortion and the death penalty at Zazzali, who listened politely and declined to comment because of upcoming cases.

The crowd seemed to want to know if he was as conservative as his navy blue suit. “I’m a Democrat,” he said, correcting a questioner who called him a Republican. “Worse—an Italian Catholic Democrat, but some of my best friends are Republicans.”

Snappy comebacks may not be the first thing you expect to hear from a Chief Justice, but Zazzali was speaking to a hometown audience of friends and neighbors, as well as faculty and students.

And he did shed some light on the seven-member court, which by tradition never has more than four members of either major political party. Decisions rarely break down by party lines, he noted.

Zazzali works killer hours. “Sixty cases every two weeks,” he said, and those legal briefs are “not brief.”

The state’s legal system used to be “maybe the worst system in the U.S.,” he said, but now it’s one of the best (although worst paid) and most productive in the country.

As for activist judges, “all judges—conservative or liberal—are activists. We all interpret the laws, not make them. The law is usually pretty clear.”

Zazzali’s wife, Eileen, and their youngest of five, Kevin, fresh out of Loyola with a degree in journalism and communications, were there to support him. Only the oldest, Mara, has followed in dad’s footsteps. Two sons are actors and another daughter is a social worker, but Kevin said he hasn’t ruled out the law.

“Maybe someday,” he said.

—By LINDA G. RASTELLI