TOMS RIVER - Lawyers for Superior Court Judge John F. Russo Jr. say the embattled Ocean County jurist “personally observed the highest standards of conduct," despite a complaint accusing him of violating the state code of judicial conduct.
But attorneys David F. Corrigan and Amelia Carolla said the judge is “in a difficult position" to defend against the accusations because he has been removed from duty and barred from the Ocean County Courthouse.
As a result, “he has no access to files, transcripts, notes, other documents and staff that might refresh his recollection in order to better respond to the allegations," the attorneys said in their written response to a complaint filed against Russo March 26 by the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
Russo, among other things, is charged with asking the victim of an alleged rape if she tried to prevent the attack by keeping her legs closed.
Russo is a former mayor of Toms River and the son of the late state Sen. John Russo Sr. He was appointed to a seven-year term on the Superior Court bench in 2015, after serving almost six years as an administrative law judge.
Russo was removed from his judicial duties April 12, 2017, by Ocean County’s assignment judge amid allegations that he threw a file at his law clerk and had a “poop emoji" hanging in his chambers. Those allegations are separate from those contained in the advisory committee’s complaint.
Corrigan and Carolla, in a May 14 written response to the advisory committee’s complaint, said of Russo, “He was consistently dignified, courteous and impartial to those he dealt with in a judicial capacity."
The attorneys said Russo "did not attempt to use his position to gain personal advantage or deferential treatment of any kind."
The advisory committee’s complaint contained four allegations: that Russo was discourteous to and mistreated an alleged rape victim who was seeking a restraining order by asking her, among other questions, if she kept her legs closed; that he attempted to use his judicial office to influence scheduling of a personal legal matter he had pending in Burlington County; that he failed to recuse himself in a spousal support matter involving a couple with whom he acknowledged having a personal relationship; and that he had improper communications with one of two parties to a paternity matter he presided over.
Corrigan and Carolla denied each of the allegations in their written response.
The complaint contained a portion of the transcript of a colloquy between Russo and the alleged rape victim in which he asked her what she did to try to stave off the attack:
“Block your body parts? … Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?"
Russo’s attorneys responded, “The selected excerpts do not effectively capture the essence of this matter which occurred over three days."
Regarding the allegation that Russo attempted to use his judicial office to influence scheduling of a personal legal matter in Burlington County, his attorneys denied that and also noted the date of his court matter there was incorrectly stated in the complaint.
Defending against the allegation that Russo failed to recuse himself in a spousal support matter involving a couple he knew personally, the judge’s attorneys repeatedly stated he was without sufficient information to respond because he doesn’t have access to documents.
The complaint said Russo reduced another judge's order for payment of spousal support arrears from $10,000 to $300, while acknowledging a personal relationship with the couple and familiarity with the husband's business.
“Respondent was a newly appointed judge to the Superior Court with little or no training or supervision prior to September 2016," Corrigan and Carolla wrote in their response to the complaint.
The attorneys said Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, long before the advisory committee’s complaint was lodged, already had discussions with Russo about errors he may have made and “indicated no further action was needed and made no referral to the committee."
However, in a certification in response to a federal lawsuit Russo filed against Ford and other judges last year after Ford barred him from the bench, the assignment judge revealed the existence of an investigation into Russo’s conduct and gave detailed reasons for removing him.
Ford, in the court certification, said there were incidents in which Russo “made threatening or bizarre statements; exhibited explosive fits of rage; lacked appropriate courtroom demeanor or reasonable legal competence in the field of law assigned to him; and otherwise exhibited extreme emotional immaturity."
Ford, in the certification, noted a “poop emoji" in Russo’s chambers which she said was “juvenile and not befitting the dignity of a judicial chambers where lawyers and others regularly conferenced with the judge."
Ford, in the certification, also referred to the colloquy in which Russo asked the alleged rape victim if she kept her legs closed. She said there was an allegation that Russo threw a file at his law clerk — the final act that prompted her to take away his judicial duties unless he submitted to a mental health evaluation.
Russo refused and instead filed a federal lawsuit alleging Ford and other bosses discriminated against him because he has a disabled son.
Russo’s attorneys, in response to the judicial misconduct complaint, said Russo “has a good reputation and character." They said while he was on the bench, he “handled cases efficiently," and eliminated a backlog of cases in the Family Division “for the first time in many years." Russo worked hard and was “caring and passionate about litigants," his attorneys said in their written response to the complaint.
“Respondent is unaware of any complaints against his strong work ethic, and to his knowledge, no party that appeared before him was ever successful in an appeal," the attorneys said.
Russo remains on paid administrative leave from his $165,000-a-year position. A hearing on the judicial misconduct charges has not yet been scheduled.
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Embattled Judge Russo's lawyers fire back after he was kicked out of courthouse