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The O'Toole Chronicles: Judge Sarlo

I recently had the honor of attending the inauguration of new Bergen County Superior Court Judge Tom Sarlo, and I noticed some cool moments at the event.

First let me say that it was interesting to see task judge Carol Novey Catuogno run the show as professionally as a Swiss watch.

Over the years, as a state senator, I have attended a fair number of judicial inaugurations and have witnessed some spectacular, some good, and some that required a little work – meaning they lost their focus and purpose or took forever.

The swearing-in process requires some explanation.

I have written about the process of securing a judgeship and it is a challenging gauntlet for many. The hunt for a judgeship is done without a script or safety net and anyone who has not spent years in the field has no idea the level of difficulty, frustration, misinformation and tension that is often unfairly packed into these appointments and their sometimes grueling process.

The last time I attended an inauguration was on May 9th when Judge John Bruder was sworn in at the Somerset Courthouse. Presiding Judge Robert Ballard emceed the show and kept the trains running throughout the entire 2 hour and 17 minute program. Tom Scrivo and I had the opportunity and honor to speak on behalf of our law student friend and it was a special moment when our other law student study partner and friend, Federal District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, swore in the new judge.

Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, a court program that lasts over two hours is going to be interesting and even Senate President Nicholas Scutari had to excuse himself when day turned to night and the bailiff started asking if we wanted fish or chicken for the upcoming dinner time. Despite the length, Judge Ballard was at his best and if you don't know this well-known outdoorsman, you should know that Judge Ballard is a fabulously charismatic and engaging judge and the speeches by John and his wonderful wife Mary Beth (also a member of our Seton Hall class of 1989) were thoughtful and full of touching purpose.

Back to Bergen.

I was honored when Senator Sarlo invited me to attend his brother's swearing-in. I have known Senator Paul for many years and served with him in the Assembly and Senate. Paul and I have fought some battles and fought side by side on the Assembly Budget Committee and the Senate Judiciary and Budget Committee. Few Senators know the game in Trenton better than Paul, and Chris Eilert, his COS, handles the judicial packages as well as any staffer I have ever seen, except for Al Barlas back in the day.

Walking into the courtroom at 10 Main Street felt like a return to Homecoming Week. I had the opportunity to greet dozens of judges, many of whom I had vetted during my time on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's odd to see individuals again with whom I once had an intense professional relationship, and then have had little to no contact after their confirmation vote. I find that when I'm face-to-face with judges, I instantly recall the details of each nominee and their background as if I had just interviewed and voted for them. It's a strange party trick I've long maintained, albeit unconsciously, which is to pull out their record in my head as if it were neatly tucked away somewhere nearby. That has no value for this column, but I can't help it.

Let us now turn to the inauguration of Judge Sarlo.

The mistress of ceremonies that day was Bergen County Bar Association President Laura Sutnick, and she was efficient and professional. As usual, all of the county senators were in attendance, including Republican Senators Corrado and Schepisi. Senator Sarlo introduced his younger brother Tom in a heartwarming way, and Paul told us all how he accidentally became mayor of Wood-Ridge (his parents thought his siblings were too busy, and Paul apparently didn't have much time to fill his day at the time).

Senator Joesph Lagana gave an excellent, off-the-cuff speech and succinctly explained why he supported the candidate. As a side note, Senator Lagana is one of the most dynamic Senators I have ever met and is one of three Senators to keep a close eye on as he continues to grow and develop in Trenton.

The next speaker was a fellow judge, Jonathan Romankow, who spoke about his longtime friend Tom and recounted their college days and their work with Judge Sarlo. It was enlightening to listen to Judge Romankow list the chronology and details of every class they took together at William Paterson University, and we learned the nicknames of each of their college buddies – it gave the room an authentic feel.

The point of all this is to quote the magnificent and moving speech given by Judge Tom Sarlo. Tom is, by all accounts, a quiet and reserved man, but his understated words that day had a real impact and left a lasting impression on many in the room, including the person sitting next to me in the jury box, former Bergen County Superior Court Judge and now Federal District Judge Brian Martinotti.

Time for the speech.

Judge Sarlo began by noting that these speeches are about nothing more than thanking the people who brought you to this special place and moment in your life. How about an opening like that? The judge began by thanking his mother and father and his immediate family, and he thanked his close friends and colleagues. The speech was never about himself, and he handled the day with humility, honesty, and genuine appreciation. I was truly impressed by the scope and tone of his heartfelt words. Perhaps more of us should try to make moments like these about others and not so much about ourselves. I submit that this noble platform is easy to strive for, but very difficult to achieve in our “me-centered” world.

The newly appointed judge then surprised us with another gem. Judge Sarlo revealed a formula that can help you figure out which friends you can rely on in an emergency. Who among us couldn't use this formula right now?

The formula is called 2/2/2 and it goes like this: In a pinch, who would you call at 2 a.m. to ask for $200 and have to drive 200 miles to get it? Once you've compiled this short list, the people on this particular list are the only ones you can consider your true friends. A moment to drop the mic.

I liked this straightforward analysis of who you trust. We could all make our own 2/2/2 list and use it as needed. More specifically, after attending dozens and dozens of inaugurations, I can say that this was one of those that left a significant impression on me.

In conclusion, I felt compelled to write this column about this day and this inauguration. I know I am taking the risk that Judge Sarlo will probably be upset that I wrote something about him, but I firmly believe that he created a gigantic life lesson that needs to be shared with others.

Well done, Judge Tom Sarlo!

Anna Harden

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