Joel A. Pisano, a former public defender who spent 22 years as a federal judge, died on February 27. He was 71.
Following his graduate from Seton Hall Law School in 1974, he went to work as a public defender in New Jersey.
Pisano was in private practice from 1978 to 1991 at Schwartz, Pisano & Nuzzi. The firm was headed by Lawrence S. Schwartz, who later became well-known as a school board attorney. Pisano became an expert in land use law. The firm later became known as Schwartz, Pisano, Simon and Edelstein.
He became active in Essex County politics in 1978 as the chairman of Attorneys for Russo, a coalitions group that was helping Robert Russo win a race for Essex County District 5 Freeholder. Russo had worked as an assistant to New Jersey Public Advocate Stanley Van Ness.
Running on a slate with County Executive candidate Peter Shapiro, Russo upset Belleville Mayor Michael Marotti by 48 votes. Russo, who later became mayor of Montclair, lost the general election to Republican James Piro by 44 votes. As a result of the close election, Pisano quickly became acquainted with New Jersey election law.
In the 1980s, Pisano became a sometime political ally of Marotti and served as chairman of the Belleville Zoning Board.
He later defended Belleville Township Clerk Mary Lou Hood, who was fired after certifying petitions to put a referendum to change the form of government on the ballot. A judge later ordered Hood reinstated.
Pisano was appointed U.S. Magistrate Judge in 1991 and took office early the following year.
In 1997, Pisano ordered a suspect in the murder of former Republican State Chairman Nelson Gross held without bail. Eighteen-year-old Alex Estevez was accused of murdering Gross, a onetime Bergen County assemblyman and the 1970 GOP U.S. Senate candidate, after robbing him outside an Edgewater restaurant he owned.
The following year, Pisano made news when he slammed the New Jersey Department of Corrections their inaction following allegations of racist and sexual harassment against women and Black prison boards.
President Bill Clinton nominated Maryanne Trump Barry, the sister of future President Donald Trump, to serve on the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1999. At the recommendation of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Clinton nominated Pisano to fill her seat on the U.S. District Court.
Pisano survived a warette that year between Lautenberg and New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator, Bob Torricelli, over the U.S. Attorney post. Lautenberg backed Paul Fishman, a former federal prosecutor, but Clinton never nominated him after Torricelli refused to support the nominee.
The position was open because the U.S. Senate had finally confirmed the nomination of U.S. Attorney Faith Hochberg to the U.S. District Court after a 4 ½ year delay.
Because Hochberg made it to the bench before Pisano, she got the assignment in Newark and Pisano had to commute to Camden early in his judicial career.
Pisano was easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February 2000, 95-2, with just James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Bob Smith of New Hampshire voting against his nomination.
While assigned to Camden, Pisano presided over the federal corruption trial of Camden Mayor Milton Milan as his first high-profile case.
Later, Pisano was the judge in the trial of Eliyahu Weinstein, who was accused of a real estate scheme that caused hundreds of millions in loses.
After his retirement in 2015, Pisano was named as the federal monitor for the International Longshoreman’s Association, a powerful union that has exercised considerable control over shipping at the port of New Jersey.
He was a resident of Sea Girt at the time of his death.