Joseph A. Falcone

'Legal giant' was tough but humane

Retired state Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Falcone, whose tough love played as well to the defendants standing before him as it did to the courtroom gallery, died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer surrounded by his family at his Wayne home. He was 70.

Falcone reveled in being a judge, often welcoming classes of high school students to sit in on proceedings in his courtroom, then meeting with them afterward to answer questions.

Speaking from the bench, he combined the strictness of a disciplinarian with the humanity and understanding of a father. Just as he reached his most intimidating, he would crack a little smile.

Falcone's 25 years on the bench were marked by precedent-setting administrative legal reforms that changed lives and improved the system. While serving as Essex County assignment judge, a post he assumed in 1999, Falcone wrote a decision in connection with the much-publicized fire at Seton Hall University that led to legislation requiring residential colleges to install fire sprinklers. He also became known for reforms that greatly increased how fast cases reached resolution.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University and his law degree from Rutgers-Camden School of Law, he was sworn as an Essex County assistant prosecutor in 1969. He became first assistant Passaic County prosecutor beginning in 1975, taking on the job of the county's top prosecutor in 1980. At different points, he served as assignment judge in both Essex and Passaic counties, making sweeping organizational improvements in each.

New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner praised Falcone's long and notable career. "He was a giant in the legal community," Rabner said. "He was a well-respected leader and a tireless public servant."

Passaic County Assignment Judge Donald J. Volkert said Falcone had an enthusiasm for his job that was inspiring. He noted that Falcone had talked with him when he retired about looking forward to the possibility of returning to the bench in a few years on what is known as "recall," when some retired judges serve part- time as needed.

"He was a dedicated and talented trial court judge," Volkert said. "He loved coming to court. He has mentored many, many judges, watched numerous new and successful initiatives achieve substantial reductions in case backlog everywhere he served, and was instrumental in the restoration of the Essex County Historic Courthouse. He will be sorely missed."

Former Then-New Jersey Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz chose Falcone in 1990 as presiding judge of Essex County's Criminal Division to reorganize a court system that a national report called "one of the slowest and least efficient of any urban county in the United States."

Falcone's work was a success, with a report by The Justice Management Institute in 1995 calling Essex "the scene of one of the most dramatic improvements in the handling of serious criminal cases that has taken place anywhere in the United States in the past 30 years."

He returned to the Passaic County bench in May 1996 as the Criminal Division's presiding judge, rising to assignment judge in October of that year. During his tenure as Passaic County's top judge, he significantly reduced criminal case backlog.

He eventually went on to serve in the state Superior Court Appellate Division before returning to Passaic County as a criminal trial judge in 2007 and remained there until his retirement in 2011.

He is survived by his wife, Beverly; his daughter, Larissa Ubriaco, and husband, Thomas, of Wayne; his brother, Richard Falcone, of Wayne, and four nieces and two nephews:

A funeral Mass will be held Friday at 9:30 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Church, 381 Main St., Paterson.

Published in The Record on Jan. 23, 2013