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Grasso: A revered jurist steps down from the bench

July 2, 2015
Written by Kathleen Hopkins

TOMS RIVER – Superior Court Judge Vincent J. Grasso has faced tough choices during his career.

And the right choice isn’t always the popular one, he said.

For instance, Grasso figured his 2010 order prohibiting prayer at the start of Point Pleasant Beach Borough Council meetings wouldn’t go over too well.

“I understand people’s religious beliefs, but the issue was what it was,” Grasso said recently during an interview in his chambers. “I see the issue as separation of church and state, and I call it like I see it.”

It’s never been difficult for him to make the unpopular choice, in that case or others. Grasso said he just follows the law. “You can’t be drawn by what you think is popular or unpopular,” he said.

Even if some of Grasso’s rulings weren’t popular, members of Ocean County’s courthouse community say they were always well thought out, thorough and respected.

And that applies to Grasso’s most recent decision to retire last month, after almost 26 years on the bench in Ocean County, eight years as the county’s assignment judge, who oversees all court operations in the county.

A respected jurist

“He never shied away from an opinion,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato said of Grasso.

Coronato said he hasn’t always agreed with Grasso’s rulings, but “I’ve always respected his legal opinions.”

Coronato added: “He’s always been an excellent judge – hardworking, conscientious. He always had my total respect. …He will be missed.”

Attorney Eugenia Lynch, president of the Ocean County Bar Association, said the county’s approximately 600 attorneys have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Grasso and will miss him.

“Judge Grasso’s been terrific to the bar,” Lynch said. “He had an open-door policy. We could talk to him about any concerns that we had.

“They’ve enjoyed working with him, so they’re sad that he’s leaving,” she said of the bar’s membership. “But they’re looking forward to Judge Ford.”

Lynch was referring to Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, former Ocean County prosecutor, who became the assignment judge on July 1.

The county’s assignment judge oversees all aspects of the courts in Ocean County. That includes 22 other Superior Court judges, administrative staff, the processing of about 62,000 cases a year and the oversight of the county’s 33 municipal courts.

Grasso, 64, became assignment judge in 2008, but, before that, he sat in each of the court’s divisions – criminal, civil, family and chancery. He was one of the youngest judges in the county when he was appointed to the bench at age 38 by Gov. Thomas Kean and sworn in on July 14, 1989.

Following his father

Grasso, a Toms River native who grew up around the corner from the Ocean County Courthouse, decided to follow in the footsteps of his late father, Vincent A. Grasso, and embark on a career as a lawyer. He practiced law for 12 years, five of them as an assistant Ocean County prosecutor, before he was appointed to the bench.

Judge Lawrence M. Lawson, who retired as Monmouth County’s assignment judge last year, has been friends with Grasso for decades and recalled the days when he, as a criminal defense attorney, was a courtroom adversary of Grasso, then an assistant prosecutor.

“He gave me a run for my money in every case,” Lawson recalled. “We were adversaries in the courtroom, but when we walked out of the courtroom, we were friends.”

Grasso has presided over murder cases. He’s been called upon to make tough decisions about the placement of children and the division of assets in divorce cases as a family court judge. As a civil court judge, he has decided issues running the gamut from zoning matters to government transparency cases.

For instance, he has ruled that the Ocean County Freeholder Board was not required to open a homeless shelter, that residents of a block in Toms River could secede from the township and join the borough Lavallette, and that Point Pleasant Beach didn’t violate the civil rights of Martell’s Tiki Bar by curtailing drinking hours in the borough.

More recently, he ruled that the government cannot use the Disaster Control Act to take someone’s property without engaging in condemnation proceedings.

Grasso has ruled in favor of government transparency in a number of cases involving the state’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act. He has ordered governmental bodies to make their meeting minutes available in a more timely fashion and he has fined some for not supplying citizens with public documents under the Open Public Records Act.

Last year, Grasso issued the first ruling of its kind in the state when he declared police dash-cam videos are public records available under the Open Public Records Act. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is appealing that decision.

No ill words

“I wish I could say something bad about him, but I can’t,” said John Paff, a Libertarian, who said he usually likes to find fault with government officials.

Paff, as treasurer of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, brought many of the government transparency cases that Grasso ruled on.

“I think he has a healthy skepticism for government claims of why information needs to be confidential,” Paff said of Grasso. “I’m sorry to see him go.”

Grasso said he has decided to leave the bench while he is still healthy and energetic. He is going to join the Toms River law firm Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle and Sacks and handle arbitration cases.

“It’ll be 26 years, and I think that’s a good run,” Grasso said. “I want to go out while I still have energy and ambition.”

A lone regret

He said a disappointment is that he never saw the construction of a new county courthouse on his watch to consolidate operations now housed in nine buildings under one roof. But he said he is proud of the new legal research center that opened in the main courthouse during his tenure as assignment judge and the collegiality he has fostered among those in the courthouse community.

“What I’ve tried to achieve is a good, professional relationship between the bench and the bar and continue a culture in Ocean County that’s a user-friendly environment for litigants and attorneys,” he said.

His daughter, Lia C. Grasso, said her father has been able to achieve that goal because he understands people.

“He knows how to lift people up, make them smile, and leave them changed in a positive way,” she said.

Grasso and his wife, Laura, also have another daughter, Christine, and a 5-year-old grandson.

Attorneys in Ocean County say Grasso’s greatest hallmark is the culture of civility and class he has fostered at the courthouse.

“Everybody likes him because he treated everybody like he wanted to be treated,” said Toms River attorney William Cunningham.

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