Joseph F. Berenato
PJ Lucca Deputy Attorney General for California
For Hammonton native PJ Lucca, success comes with a mixture of hard work and sincere desire.
“I would tell anyone out there that our thoughts and dreams create our reality, and that if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it,” Lucca told The Gazette.
Lucca’s refusal to accept anything but the best resulted in his new position as a deputy attorney general for the state of California, which he started on March 2.
A 1988 graduate of St. Joseph High School, Lucca attended The Pennsylvania State University, where he graduated in 1992 with an economics degree and a minor in business administration. From there, he attended Rutgers Law School in Camden, graduating in 1998. From there, Lucca had a one-year judicial clerkship for a judge in New Jersey’s appellate division before going into private practice.
Soon, though, life took Lucca in a different direction—literally.
“I practiced in South Jersey for about five years, primarily doing civil defense litigation. In 2005, I was working for Cozen O’Connor, and I was a junior partner there in their Cherry Hill office. I decided to leave, and I did a one-year surf trip around the world. The plan was that I was going to do a solo, around-the-world surf trip, and then move to California. That’s exactly what I did. I traveled around the world, and came back, then drove out to California and I’ve been here ever since,” Lucca said.
Lucca said that he has spent the last 14 years in California in civil litigation.
“Most recently, I was with a very large firm—Gordon & Rees—a national firm with offices in all 50 states, and a big one in Philadelphia. Then, I was lured away to open up an office for a smaller national firm; I opened up a San Diego office in March of 2020. Prior to that, I had been recruited by the department of justice—the attorney general’s office, specifically—in Sacramento. I started applying for positions in the attorney general’s office. It’s a very long interview process. I went through that throughout 2020, was offered a position as a deputy attorney general in the tort and condemnation section and accepted it,” Lucca said.
Lucca noted that the attorney general’s office has many divisions to it.
“A lot of people ‘office of the attorney general,’ and they think that I’m in the criminal division—like I’d be prosecuting people on behalf of the state—but I’m in the civil division. Our primary mission is to defend state agencies against claims brought mostly by private individuals,” Lucca said.
Lucca said that cases could range from personal injury suits brought against the state to more serious claims.
“If someone trips and falls in a California state park and they injure themselves, so they wind up suing California State Parks. We would defend that agency in court in a civil lawsuit brought by the person that fell, most likely a private individual. A more complicated case would be defending the California Highway Patrol against a claim of excessive use of force. Those types of claims could include all types of constitutional claims, deprivation of constitutional rights, you have claims like false arrest and things like that. The workload runs the gamut, and runs from your garden variety negligence cases to constitutional rights cases. It’s pretty exciting stuff,” Lucca said.
That particular division also handles condemnation matters, also known as eminent domain.
“Condemnation is the concept where the state takes private land for public use. The most basic example of that would be where they’re going to widen a freeway, and they’re going to take some land along the freeway and add another lane. That’s private land, so they would pay that private landowner whatever market rate or a fair share for that land. The taking of that land is for public purposes,” Lucca said.
Lucca said that he saw the position with the attorney general’s office as “an excellent opportunity.”
“I’ve always had an appreciation for public work, and I’m really excited to get into it, especially in California ... When I clerked for the appellate division in New Jersey, which was a very respected court, one of the things they told us on our first day of training was, if you’re going to look anywhere for precedent, we look to California as a judiciary that we respect. That always stuck in my mind. The California courts have an excellent reputation throughout the country. I’m very excited to be part of the Department of Justice, and to be able to represent the state of California in these claims. I’m really looking forward to a long career here, and potentially moving up through the ranks in the Department of Justice and seeing what the future brings,” Lucca said.
Lucca lives in the Point Loma neighborhood of San Diego with his wife, Meredith, and their two children: Meridian, 2, and Peter Zenin Lucca—“we call him Zenin,” Lucca said—who was born in September of 2020. He enjoys living in San Diego, and especially appreciates the view from his new office.
“I am overlooking the Embarcadero and San Diego Bay; I’m overlooking the U.S.S. Nimitz, which is an aircraft carrier that is docked here at the Embarcadero and is a museum,” Lucca said.
Despite that, Lucca said that he will never give up his “Hammonton connection.”
“We’ll be using all of our vacation time to come home and visit Hammonton. I want to bring the kids to the 16th of July this year. I’m somewhat depressed that the nuns won’t be around, but, hopefully, everything is cleared up by then. I come home a lot. I try to get home as often as possible, usually around the holidays and a good, long time during the summer. Miss home. Love home,” Lucca said.
Even in California, Lucca said, he encounters people who are familiar with his hometown.
“My license plate, actually, is NJSURF. I get a lot of comments on that. There was actually a guy who came up to me the other day, and he said, ‘I used to go to the Hammonton/St. Joe game on Thanksgiving Day.’ Turns out, his family is from Spring Road, the Delguercios. I don’t ever want to give up that connection. All roads lead to Hammonton,” Lucca said.