On December 26, airplane pilot and scuba diver Serena Perretti Benson, a U.S. Magistrate and Superior Court Judge regularly assigned to high-profile criminal trials, died. 95.
Perretti was known for tough penalties and scolding unprepared attorneys throughout her two decades as a state and a federal judge.
In June 1993, a gunman snuck a.357 Magnum into the Essex County Courthouse and assassinated Newark undercover Police Detective John Sczyrek as he was about to testify against a cousin in a narcotics trial.
Perretti was a target. Ralph Rizzolo, a young Essex County Sheriff’s officer, survived being shot. Tinesha James, a county probation office clerk due to be dismissed, admits to bringing the murder weapon into the courthouse.
She was the first woman appointed U.S. Magistrate Judge from the District of New Jersey in 1976 and served until Gov. Thomas Kean nominated her to the New Jersey Superior Court in 1986.
Former New Jersey attorney general Peter N. Perretti, Jr. died. In 1958, her father, Peter N. Perretti, endorsed Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston).
Perretti worked as a Vermont child welfare worker after her father disapproved of law school for women in the 1950s. After a few years, her father changed his mind and she attended Rutgers Law School.
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In 1953, she became the first woman managing editor of the Rutgers Law Review.
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In 1956, Mayor Paul DeMuro named her to the Passaic Board of Education for three years after she served as an acting municipal court judge.
In 1959, four Democratic incumbents—Robert Wegner (D-Paterson), Joseph Keegan (D-Passaic), Betty McNamara Kordja (D-Paterson), and Samuel Biber (D-Pompton Lakes)—defeated Perretti by around 5,000 votes.
Perretti’s Assembly campaign was successful. She married GOP running mate Richard Benson in 1962. Moving to Short Hills.
Perretti was considered for associate justice after Morris Pashman retired from the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1982. Marie Garibaldi, the first female New Jersey Bar Association president, and former Weehawken Municipal Court judge, took the seat. First female New Jersey Supreme Court justice Garibaldi.
In 1986, Perretti was easily confirmed as a Superior Court Judge and sworn in on January 6, 1987.
In 1990, a capital murder defendant jumped from Perretti’s 11th-floor courtroom window to his death.
She retired at 70 in 1998.
Drew University awarded Perretti a master’s in Medieval Studies at 87. Perretti, a lifetime Republican, recently become unaffiliated.
Her three children survive her husband.