After touring vineyards on vacation in the Napa Valley in 2013, Ralph J. Lamparello had settled down to enjoy a glass of wine when his cell phone rang.
Governor Chris Christie was on the line, and the then-president of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) excused himself to take the call outside. This was no social call. After complaining about Lamparello’s criticism of him in the press, Christie told him he was not going to nominate state Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens for reappointment.
The move was an assault on the independence of the Judiciary, and Lamparello would have none of it. The conversation quickly became heated and the two argued for a half-hour. The gauntlet had been dropped at that moment, and over the next several years Lamparello and the association fought to keep politics out of the judicial system.
“Ralph Lamparello’s crusade for an independent Judiciary is emblematic of his passion to fight for principles and justice during his legal career,” said Norberto A. Garcia, president of the New Jersey State Bar Foundation (NJSBF).
On Sept. 16, Lamparello, an NJSBA trustee and managing partner of Chasan, Lamparello, Mallon and Cappuzzo in Secaucus, will receive the 2019 Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded by the foundation. Shirley Berger Whitenack, an NJSBA trustee and a partner at Schenck, Price, Smith and King in Florham Park, will also receive the award.
The Medal of Honor is given each year to those who have made exemplary contributions to improve the justice system and enhance New Jersey’s legal legacy.
“It’s an extraordinary honor, and I’m very, very humbled by it,” said Lamparello, who is secretary of the foundation. “You just try to do the right thing, to make the system better for all who participate in it and to give back to the community.”
Lamparello has garnered numerous accolades over the years, including the association’s Arthur T. Vanderbilt Award for Excellence in Judicial Administration and the Professional Lawyer of the Year from the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law.
In some ways, Lamparello is still the same scrappy kid who grew up in the gas station his family owned in Bayonne. He went to school in a rough neighborhood in Jersey City. Bigger and more confident than most of the other kids near his school, “I was able to do what had to be done in that tough neighborhood,” Lamparello recalled.
While studying law at St. John’s University Law School in New York, he worked as an investigator in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and then got a job as an assistant prosecutor after he graduated.
His scrappiness and drive to fight for what was right was evident even then, although often it came with risks. Still a young assistant prosecutor, Lamparello wrote a column in the Hudson County Bar Association’s newspaper railing against the aging administration building’s poor conditions. Asbestos ceiling tiles would crumble into office workers’ cups and the hallways were so narrow that guards would shout to potential jurors to clear the way for defendants in handcuffs and chains to pass.
“How can that person get a fair trial? I was a prosecutor and that would have been to my benefit, but I didn’t feel they could get a fair trial,” he said.
After several years, Lamparello left to work as a deputy attorney general in the division of criminal justice. When his father died, he returned to Hudson County to be closer to his mother and started a law firm with Thomas P. Olivieri. They worked as criminal defense attorneys and eventually added other types of litigation. Olivieri left to become a judge and Lamparello merged the practice with a small, seven-member firm that he helped grow over the years into Chasan, Lamparello, Mallon and Cappuzzo, now a 50-member firm that represents major insurance companies and city and county governments, such as Newark, Jersey City and Hudson County. Lamparello transitioned into labor and employment law.
“He’s one of the best lawyers I know,” said Olivieri, a retired superior court judge who is a mediator and arbitrator at Chasan, Lamparello, Mallon and Cappuzzo. “No one will ever out-work him or be more prepared than he is or care more about his clients that he does. That combination is the trifecta when it comes to being an attorney.”
A CAREER OF SERVICE
The more he got involved, the more the foundation, the association and their missions became an important part of his life, Lamparello said.
A longtime member of the NJSBA, he initially got involved in the bar foundation at the recommendation of friends. He threw himself into the charitable and education wing of the association and started an investment policy that would help fund the foundation’s programming. He also oversaw an update and overhaul of the New Jersey Law Center.
Meanwhile, at the association he chaired the Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments, Finance and Operations Committee and Meetings Arrangements and Travel committees. In 2008, he was selected as secretary of the NJSBA, eventually serving as president in 2013, where he took up the mantle of fighting for a fair and independent judicial system.
After the Justice Hoens matter, Lamparello took on the fight for an independent Judiciary with zeal. He spoke out publicly and wrote numerous op-ed pieces for The Star-Ledger. During his tenure as president, the NJSBA formed a Task Force on Judicial Independence that held hearings and issued a report that turned into municipal court reform.
“One thing about Ralph is if he decides to do something, he gives it 110 percent,” said Assignment Judge Peter Bariso Jr., a former partner at Chasan, Leyner, Bariso and Lamparello.
“He takes challenges on no matter the odds…The biggest contribution that he’s recognized for is his fight for Judicial independence. He successfully got the governor to reappoint Chief Justice Stuart Rabner,” Bariso said.
It is a victory that Lamparello particularly savors. On a wall in his office hangs a framed copy of one of the articles he wrote where, decrying the governor’s potential failure to reappoint the chief justice, he described it as “a body blow to the concept of an independent judiciary…It would be a clear and blatant attempt to co-opt the judiciary by another branch that is supposed to be its equal, not its superior.”