Samuel Zoll dies at 76; led district court judges

Samuel E. Zoll was also Salem’s mayor. Samuel E. Zoll was also Salem’s mayor.
By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2011

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In 28 years as chief justice of the Massachusetts District Courts, Samuel E. Zoll championed major court reforms affecting thousands of lives. But it was recent news of his talk with a 12-year-old shoplifter back in the 1970s that garnered national headlines.

Judge Zoll, a former mayor of Salem who died yesterday from cancer at age 76 at his home, helped turn future US Senator Scott Brown’s life around that day, Brown revealed in a memoir in February.

The judge took Brown, who had stolen a Black Sabbath record, into his chambers, where they talked about Brown’s love of being king of the basketball court around his adoring half-siblings.

“He looked me dead in the eye no smile and said, ‘How do you think they’re going to like seeing you play basketball in jail?’ ’’ Brown wrote.

Yesterday, Brown was deeply saddened to hear of Zoll’s death.

“To me and to countless others whose lives he touched throughout a rich and full life, Judge Zoll was a trusted mentor, a source of strength — and above all — a caring friend,’’ Brown said in a statement. “I know things would have turned out quite differently if our paths had not crossed.’’

Appointed by Governor Frances W. Sargent, Justice Zoll spent three years on the district court bench before Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed him chief justice in 1976 and he began his long career managing the more than 150 judges in the district court system.

“Chief Justice Samuel Zoll will be remembered as an outstanding judge who was admired for his fairness, integrity, and respect for all,’’ said Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland.

“His contributions to the judiciary are wide ranging. A consummate professional, Chief Justice Zoll led the district court department for many years with utmost skill, grace, wit, and wisdom. We will miss him.’’

Judge Zoll was remembered for his successful efforts to abolish the state’s two-trial system, and for advocating that district court judges receive pay on par with superior court judges. He backed strengthening laws against domestic violence and enhancing the probation department’s powers.

He also judged the judges. He drew public criticism for what victim advocates viewed as his soft handling of one judge who berated a victim of domestic violence in the mid-1980s. The 22-year-old woman was later murdered by her husband.

“He had a difficult job. It meant he wasn’t going to be popular. He had to enforce rules that didn’t make people happy. When it was necessary, he called people into his office,’’ said retired Supreme Judicial Court Justice Judith Cowin. “He used the carrot and the stick. There was a way to behave, and when they didn’t behave, there were costs.’’

Retired Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall described Judge Zoll as “a wonderful colleague and a wise mentor.’’

“I found him [to be] a man of enormous integrity, very compassionate about human frailty but very committed to even-handedness both in dealing with his judges and his administrative staff,’’ she said.

Jerry Berg, Judge Zoll’s court administrator for 27 years, said, “I remember him as a man of courage. He was a person who seldom took the easy way out,’’ said Berg. “He was a tremendously ethical person.’’

Judge Zoll, who was 6-foot-6 and known for his self-deprecating humor, was beloved by his staff, Berg said. “He was always concerned about your problems.’’

Born Samuel Edward Zoll in Peabody in 1934, Judge Zoll was a lifelong resident of Salem who became the city’s youngest councilor at age 23. He was elected mayor in 1970.

His belief in upholding ethics laws was legendary. When producers of the television show “Bewitched’’ attempted to give city officials promotional glassware from the show after they shot an episode in the Witch City, Judge Zoll ordered the glasses donated to the Essex Institute.

He also refused a lime pie from a business owner who was grateful for his help obtaining a permit, according to his family.

Judge Zoll helped feed his family during the Depression with a paper route he held for nearly 15 years. The job helped launch his career in local politics, because he knew so many voters from the paper route.

Judge Zoll was married 50 years to Lynn native Marjorie (Waldman). They met on a blind date.

He served in the Navy during the Korean War. He was a 1951 graduate of Salem High School and a 1954 graduate of Boston University with a degree in accounting. He graduated from Suffolk Law School in 1962 after going to night school while working days as a high school math teacher in Danvers.

At age 30, he was elected state representative and served two terms.

After he was elected mayor, newspapers heralded him as the first Jewish chief executive in the state’s second oldest city. His tenure was marked by redevelopment of the waterfront and his devotion to creation of Salem’s Winter Island as a public park.

Judge Zoll went for regular swims off the shore of the island and often bicycled in the Pan Mass Challenge.

After he retired from the bench, Judge Zoll served on the Commonwealth Joint Labor-Management Committee, which oversees collective bargaining negotiations between police officers and firefighters and municipalities.

He was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and was still working part time in recent weeks.

In a February interview, Judge Zoll recalled assigning the young Scott Brown to write a 1,500-word essay.

“I wish I had kept that thing,’’ Judge Zoll said. “We’ve had some successes. You never hear about your failures, unless they are re-arrested. I am humbled and grateful that he remembered this, and I’m very pleased that he was able to, with the help of many others, go on.’’

In addition to his wife, Judge Zoll leaves his brother, Michael of Vineyard Haven; a son, Barry of Barrington, R.I.; three daughters, Cheryl of Amherst, Risa of Jerusalem, and Rachel of New York City; and five grand-daughters.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday at Salem High School.

Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Globe correspondent J.M. Lawrence can be reached at