Home>Highlight>Serena Perretti Benson, former federal and state judge, dies at 94

Former Judge Serena Perretti Benson. (Photo: Abbey Affordable Cremation & Funeral Services).

Serena Perretti Benson, former federal and state judge, dies at 94

GOP Assembly candidate in 1959 was later a target of an assasination attempt during a drug trial at the Essex County Courthouse

By David Wildstein, January 08 2023 4:53 pm

Serena Perretti Benson, an airplane pilot and scuba diver who served as a U.S. Magistrate and Superior Court Judge frequently assigned to high-profile criminal trials,  died on December 26.  She was 95.

During her two decades as a state and federal judge, Perretti earned a reputation for giving harsh sentences to criminals and a willingness to lash out at unprepared attorneys.

Perretti was a target of a June 1993 assassination attempt when a gunman used a .357 Magnum smuggled into the Essex County Courthouse and killed Newark undercover Police Detective John Sczyrek just as he was set to testify against a cousin who was the defendant in a drug trial.   A young Essex County Sheriff’s officer, Ralph Rizzolo, was also shot but survived.   Tinesha James, a county probation office clerk who was about to be fired, later admitted that she snuck the murder weapon into the courthouse.

She was appointed U.S. Magistrate Judge in 1976 – the first woman to serve on the federal bench from the District of New Jersey — and served there until Gov. Thomas Kean nominated her to serve as a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court in 1986.

Perretti’s late brother was Peter N. Perretti, Jr., a former attorney general of New Jersey.   Her father, Peter N. Perretti, had served as a Superior Court Judge in the 1930s and supported Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston) for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1958.

Unable to go to law school because her father didn’t think it was a great career for women in the 1950s,  Perretti worked as a child welfare working in Vermont.  Within a few years, her father changed his mind and she enrolled at Rutgers Law School.  She became the first woman managing editor of the Rutgers Law Review  in 1953 and worked with her father in a Passaic law firm.

She served as an acting municipal court judge in Passaic before Mayor Paul DeMuro appointed her to serve a three-year term on the Passaic Board of Education in 1956.

Perretti was the Republican candidate for the New Jersey State Assembly in 1959 but four Democratic incumbents – Robert Wegner (D-Paterson), Joseph Keegan (D-Passaic),  Betty McNamara Kordja (D-Paterson) and Samuel Biber (D-Pompton Lakes) – defeated her by roughly 5,000 votes.

But Perretti’s Assembly campaign was not entirely unsuccessful.  In 1962, she married one of her GOP running mates, former Wayne Township Richard Benson.  They moved to Short Hills.

Upon the retirement of Morris Pashman from the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1982, Perretti was considered for an associate justice nomination.  Instead, the seat went to Marie Garibaldi, a former Weehawken Municipal Court Judge and the first woman president of the New Jersey Bar Association.  Garibadli was the first woman to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Perretti easily won confirmation as a Superior Court Judge in 1986 and was sworn in on January 6, 1987.

In 1990, a defendant in a capital murder case jumped from an 11th floor window in Perretti’s courtroom  to his death.

She served on the bench until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1998.

At age 87, Perretti earned a master’s degree in Medieval Studies from Drew University.  A longtime Republican, Perretti has switched her party registration to unaffiliated in recent year.

Predeceased by her husband, she is survived by her three children.

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