|New Jersey Supreme Court|
TRENTON — The state Supreme Court today ruled that a pair of Passaic County judges violated state judicial ethics rules by dining with a long-time friend after he was indicted on corruption charges — but stopped short of punishing the judges.
State Superior Court Judge Raymond A. Reddin and Paterson Municipal Judge Gerald Keegan faced sanctions ranging from suspension to being forced off the bench for continuing to attend regular dinner gatherings after their friend, Anthony Ardis — a former top-level administrator at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission — was charged with official misconduct.
In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the state's highest court said both judges "reasonably called into question their impartiality and weakened the public's confidence in the judicial system."
"Because such events raise questions about the integrity of judges and the Judiciary as a whole, they should not take place," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court.
But Rabner said both judges have "an unblemished record and neither engaged in actual impropriety."
Still, as part of the ruling, the court strengthened ethics rules for New Jersey judges.
Many states and federal courts determine when a judge's conduct creates an appearance of impropriety by considering "whether reasonable minds would perceive that a judge has violated the judicial canons of ethics," according to the decision.
Thus, the Supreme Court adopted a new standard for New Jersey: "Would an individual who observes the judge's personal conduct have a reasonable basis to doubt the judge's integrity and impartiality?"
"That approach appropriately protects the reputation of the Judiciary and, by extension, the public," Rabner wrote. "It also is fairer to judges, who can better anticipate the meaning of the more familiar test."
The court noted that any judge who dines with someone under indictment from now on would be sanctioned under the new standard.
Ardis has been friends with Reddin for 50 years and Keegan for 30 years, according to court papers. In 2000, they began weekly gatherings for dinner at a Woodland Park restaurant, following by Mass at a nearby church.
In 2011, Ardis was indicted for allegedly using his power and influence at the PVSC — the commission that oversees the state's largest sewage treatment plant — to exploit subordinates into helping fix up his mother's home for free.
The group continued to meet despite the indictment, according to the papers. And in September 2012, they dined at the restaurant while a local Republican organization hosted a dinner there the same evening. One guest emailed Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno about it, and the matter was referred to the state Division of Criminal Justice, the documents say.
The judges voluntarily stopped dining with Ardis after the grievance, according to the papers.
In June of last year, the state Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct recommended that Reddin and Keegan be only publicly admonished and not suspended or removed.
Reddin's attorney — his son, Raymond B. Reddin of Totowa — said he was pleased with today's ruling.
"As the opinion clearly stated, both Judges have unblemished records and neither engaged in any actual impropriety," the son said. "Now they can go forward serving the public with their heads held high."
Keegan's attorney, Clark Cornwell III of Paterson, said he was happy the court created a new standard.
"I think it now tells judges that their conduct will be assess in the context of what a reasonable person might think," Cornwell said.
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N.J. Supreme Court says judges broke rules by dining with indicted friend