Published in 2023 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine
By Natalie Pompilio on October 2, 2023
If there’s one lesson to take from Judge John Nazzaro’s 10-year run hearing criminal and civil cases, it’s this: expect the unexpected.
Conservatives hailed him as a champion of the Second Amendment one day, then criticized him the next for approving diversion programs for drug users. Liberals approved when he released incarcerated persons who “sincerely wanted to address their issues,” but balked when he set high bonds on offenders charged with re-violating a protective order.
“I ran into so much resistance from so many interest groups for what I felt were appropriate dispositions,” says Nazzaro, 64, who is Connecticut’s second judge of Asian Pacific descent. “Politics had nothing to do with my decision-making process. As a judge, I tried to do what was correct under the circumstances before me, devoid of political fallout. I made everyone mad.”
Another unexpected decision by Nazzaro? Returning to civil litigation after a decade on the bench.
“Most judges that leave—90 percent of them—if they return to any form of practice, it’s mediation and alternative dispute resolution,” says Kelly Reardon, managing partner of The Reardon Law Firm, which Nazzaro joined as partner in 2018. “He didn’t really want to do that. He wanted to get back in the trenches.”
Reardon says Nazzaro has a renewed energy about him now. The judicial stint allowed him to recharge his batteries, spending more time with his family. But he had his reasons for leaving the bench. One was financial: “I took a six-figure reduction in pay to be a jurist,” he says.” The other: He just likes being a lawyer.
“It’s fun. Yes, fun. Sometimes, it’s life changing. I just secured a million dollars for a 28-year-old seriously injured in an auto accident. He was breathless in my office signing the settlement papers last week,” Nazzaro says. “I’m glad my clients benefit from my 42 years of experience in the law as an investigator, prosecutor, lawyer, judge, then lawyer again.”
Nazzaro is a self-proclaimed military brat. His parents met in Japan after World War II. His father, Gus, lied about his age and dropped out of high school to enlist, worked his way up to staff sergeant under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and later fought in the Korean War. His mother, Shin, was Japanese and worked as a government food inspector.
They married, then left for the U.S. in 1950. Nazzaro, the youngest of five children, was born at Arizona’s Fort Huachuca. The family moved to Germany and France before returning to the U.S. when Nazzaro was 5. Once stateside, the family bounced around the Northeast, eventually settling in Connecticut.
In 1957, the Army chose Gus to learn more about these newfangled thingies called computers. “My dad was a smart man, a math whiz. He never went to college, but he taught computer science at the University of New Haven,” Nazzaro says. “He was the necessary guy in the room. He taught me a lot about being humble and not being impressed by initials and degrees.”
Another major professional impetus for Nazzaro was Watergate. He was so impressed by the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that he decided to major in journalism at Southern Connecticut State. After graduation, he worked as a radio news reporter, covering the 1980 presidential race. But the pay was horrible—“I was essentially a pauper,” Nazzaro says—and his goal to become a network news anchor seemed unlikely.
“After covering events for a couple of years,” he says, “I thought I’d be more impactful as a story maker.”
Two of Nazzaro’s favorite shows when he was growing up were Perry Mason and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, so law school was a natural next step. “I thought I would become a career prosecutor. I grew up respecting law enforcement, my dad having been a military policeman,” he says. “I figured they were the guys with the white hats.”
After completing his degree at Quinnipiac University School of Law in 1984, and serving a stint as an investigator in Washington, D.C., Nazzaro began working for the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. Former Chief State’s Attorney Austin McGuigan became a key role model and, later, a friend.
“He taught me a lot about ethics, about being a lawyer, about being a public servant,” Nazzaro says.
Some were less enthusiastic about his choice. Between his second and third year of law school, Nazzaro ran into a former professor and told the man he secured a job as a prosecutor.
“He said, ‘I suppose society needs its garbage collectors,’ then turned on his heel and left,” Nazzaro recalls. “He was disappointed that I wasn’t going to go out there and work for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union or the ACLU and be a champion for the wrongly accused. … In law school, they’re raising folks to defend the world, defend the poor and the needy. The last thing they wanted was to turn out a bunch of prosecuting attorneys.”
In 1987, Nazzaro joined a firm helmed by Bob Reardon, where he would later meet newbie lawyer Daniel Horgan.
“He showed me by example that nothing replaces extremely hard work in preparing your cases for trial, going over every detail, hiring any experts you need, knowing the facts inside and out,” says Horgan, outgoing president of the Connecticut Bar Association, whose eponymous firm is based in New London. “We tried a few cases together and he’d tell me why he was doing this or that. I still practice those lessons and pass them on.”
Horgan remembers a case involving a man who severed his ring finger while climbing down a ladder with his back to the rungs. “This client slipped because he wasn’t using it properly and his wedding ring got stuck,” Horgan recalls. “As a new lawyer, I’m thinking, ‘How the heck are we going to win this case? The guy was misusing the ladder.’”
During lunch one day, Nazzaro and Horgan were at a department store when they came across some ladders. They noticed that other ladders by the manufacturer had plastic covers that fit over sharp edges to prevent them from tearing clothes or flesh. The model their client had purchased did not. Fast-forward to their day in court: Nazzaro and Horgan triumphed.
“John showed me that manufacturers should anticipate how a product will be used by the average Joe or Jane,” Horgan says. “Another lesson? Don’t refuse a case that looks unwinnable without taking a step back and looking at it from all angles and thoroughly investigating.”
In 2007, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell appointed Nazzaro to the bench. In 2016, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy reappointed him. At different times during his tenure, Nazzaro served as chief presiding civil judge and chief presiding criminal judge for Geographical Area 10. While colleagues in law enforcement weren’t happy when he left as a prosecutor—one police chief didn’t speak to him for 10 years—it was different when he was appointed.
“You know, your honor, I’m glad you’re one of us again,” he recalls a police officer saying.
“I didn’t say much, but I thought, ‘I’m not really one of you,’” Nazzaro says. “As a magistrate and a judge, I’m about being neutral and doing what’s in the interest of justice.”
Brock Dubin, a partner with Guilford’s Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, presented multiple cases before Judge Nazzaro. “He was an incredibly thoughtful judge,” Dubin says. “He always explained his rulings in great detail.”
Dubin recalls one case in which he was defending a company being sued by a former employee. The plaintiff’s lawyer had rested her case when she realized she’d failed to call one of her witnesses and she wanted to include the witness’s deposition testimony in her rebuttal. Dubin argued that it was inadmissible as she hadn’t presented it during her case-in-chief and it would not directly rebut any of his arguments.
Nazzaro decided the evidence was inadmissible.
“This was a difficult decision,” says Dubin, who ultimately won the case. “But John did not shy away from difficult decisions, and followed the rules.”
Longtime friend Matthew Frechette, a Connecticut Superior Court judge, says Nazzaro’s decision to return to private practice didn’t surprise him. He has seen the way Nazzaro presents cases.
“He has a natural way of relating to people. He doesn’t talk down to them and I think juries like him because of that. He has a natural sincerity, but he’s also skilled technically and three steps ahead,” Frechette says.
Another case brought Nazzaro to tears. He was representing a man charged with arson, accused of trying to destroy his own home, but there was no financial motivation: the house was under-insured. The client was a military veteran and Purple Heart recipient who dealt with explosives in combat and served as a volunteer firefighter. None of it made sense to Nazzaro.
“The police theory of the case was the fire had started in the basement, but the windows were shut. … I argued to the jury that the theory was wrong, because what are the components of fire? Flame and oxygen. So why were the windows shut?” Nazzaro says. “My client was an explosives expert. If he’d wanted to light his house on fire, he would have succeeded.”
He also showed video footage of his client at work that night as a casino host. “He walked in and lifted his pinky while sipping the cup of tea, very calmly,” Nazzaro says, demonstrating the motion often associated with formal high tea events. “I said to the jury, ‘Is that a picture of a guy who just set his house on fire? You’d think he’d be pacing. He’d be nervous. He’d be looking over his shoulder.’”
Nazzaro then recounts what it was like when the verdict came. “Next to the birth of my children, it was the most emotional experience of my life. I cried. My wife, who was my paralegal, cried. My client cried,” he remembers. “You can see how the system got it wrong. The jury got it right.”
Nazzaro and wife Laurie have been married for 24 years and have a daughter, Miranda, 23. He also has two sons from his first marriage, Elliot, 33, and Alex, 31. In addition to his family, church and scuba diving, he took up surfing last year. He loves music and traveling to good festivals. For years, he played acoustic guitar, occasionally performing in local clubs and restaurants along the shoreline. He hopes to do so again.
He is also past chairman of the education committee for the New London chapter of the NAACP, and currently serves on its executive committee.
“I spent two years as the state’s habeas corpus judge, and I continually saw men who were 30 years old and 10 years into their 50-year sentences. Their lives were over,” says Nazzaro. “I see a generation of young brown and Black men who are lost and forgotten. I want to help them.”
Being biracial helps Nazzaro identify, he says. “I understand racism firsthand, and the challenges it presents. And that includes reverse racism—the racism of Asian preference. Everybody assumes Asians are smart, academic and, frankly, perform well without trying. It cuts both ways.”
Sink or Swim
How John Nazzaro’s temperament fits his scuba diving hobby
Friend and fellow diver Brock Dubin says Nazzaro’s penchant for the unexpected and pressure situations works as well in the courtroom as the deep. “So much can go wrong when you’re 100 feet underwater. If you’re anxious, terrified, panicked, it would not be beneficial,” he says. “As lawyers, we often deal with unexpected situations that can have adverse consequences for your client. If a judge or a jury sees you panicking, they’ll probably think you’re doing something wrong. As a lawyer, and as a diver, you always hope for the best, but you absolutely prepare for any situation and the better you are prepared, the better the results.”
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