|A number of recent high-profile ethics complaints has focused new attention on New Jersey's judiciary. (Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media file photo)|
In New Jersey, you call them judges.
The number of grievances filed against judges has been growing, according to an examination by NJ Advance Media of never-before-released data from the state judiciary. And while the vast number of those grievances do not become formal complaints, several recent high-profile disciplinary cases have put a spotlight on judicial misconduct in courtrooms across New Jersey.
They include the ethics case against John F. Russo Jr., a family court judge in Ocean County, who told an alleged rape victim that she could have possibly avoided the situation if she "closed her legs," according to a complaint filed against him by the New Jersey Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, or ACJC.
While his case is still pending, Russo--the son of former Democratic Senate President John Russo Sr.--is currently on administrative leave after he was removed from his judicial duties last year by Ocean County's assignment judge in connection with other unrelated allegations.
Wilfredo Benitez, a municipal judge in East Orange and Belleville, is accused of violating the state's Code of Judicial Conduct in the wake of an incident where he was found by State Troopers passed out in the driver's seat of his silver BMW on the side of Interstate 80, and subsequently struggled with a field sobriety test.
"I can't believe you're doing this. I'm not a f---ing drug addict. I'm not drunk," he told the troopers, according to the complaint lodged against him. "I'm a f---ing judge. You're not going to give me any courtesy?"
Ethics charges before the ACJC are also pending against Superior Court Judge Deborah Gross-Quatrone who was accused of ordering her secretary to do her son's homework. She was also accused of making a law clerk work off-the-clock without pay, and secretly taping conversations with other judges when her behavior came under scrutiny, according to the complaint.
And Superior Court Judge Carlia M. Brady in Middlesex County is facing ethics allegations that she hindered the efforts of Woodbridge police to arrest her boyfriend on a robbery charge. In a complaint against Brady earlier this month, the ACJC said she "demonstrated an inability to conform her conduct to the high standards of conduct expected of judges and impugned the integrity of the Judiciary."
Overall, five formal complaints have been filed so far this year against four Superior Court judges and one municipal court judge, up from four the previous year. But the number of grievances complaining of judicial behavior or violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct has climbed over the last three years, to 408 last year, up from 378 in 2015.
Those filings rise and fall year by year, but the trend over the past decade has seen a steady increase. According to the New Jersey Courts data provided to NJ Advance Media, 276 grievances have been filed in first eight months of the current judicial year, which runs from July to July.
Attorney Nancy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes, argued that there have been an increasing number of judges, most appointed in recent years, who simply do not know the law.
"There is a lot of grumbling among lawyers about judges who don't know anything about trying cases. About their having no experience in trying cases," she said of recent appointments to the bench.
She placed the blame for that on the Christie administration's decision to end a long-standing process of using county committees of the New Jersey State Bar Association to scrutinize judicial appointments.
"Chris Christie disbanded the most effective method of vetting judges," charged Smith, who served for many years on the Bar Association's county committee in Essex and co-chaired the Bar Association's state committee for one year.
"By disbanding the county committees, he made sure none of his appointees would be vetted by those who would most familiar with their experience as attorneys," she said.
While Smith said there have been "wonderfully qualified people" named as judges, she added that there have been others who were "promoted out of positions they were failing at," or nominated by Christie as a political favor.
All seven of the Superior Court judges brought up on ethics charges since 2016 were Christie nominations, records show.
Former Christie administration officials took strong issue with any notion that the judges he nominated were lacking in qualifications.
In a statement issued through a spokesman for the former governor, Jeffrey Chiesa, Christopher Porrino and Thomas Scrivo, who all served as chief counsel to the governor, said that "as the lawyers who oversaw the vast majority of these judicial appointments, we endorse and remain extraordinarily proud of the judicial appointments made during our tenures, and we reject any sweeping generalization that demeans these fine jurists based upon the alleged mistakes or misconduct of a few."
In their statement, the three said that from January 2010 through January 2018, "Gov. Christie nominated, and the legislature confirmed, hundreds of judges, after each judicial candidate was carefully vetted by the state senator who sponsored him or her," as well as the state Bar Association, the Judicial Advisory Panel and the Governor's Appointments Office.
"It is offensive and irresponsible for anyone to suggest that these highly qualified and hard-working public servants are somehow less qualified than the judges who were appointed prior to 2010," they wrote.
Under the Hughes Compact, named for former New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes, the state's governors have historically agreed to withhold nominations of judges, justices and prosecutors until the bar association's Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee deemed them qualified.
But Smith said Christie revised the compact, limiting the input of the county bar committees.
Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year signed a new compact, bringing the county bar associations back into the the process, New Jersey State Bar Association officials said.
The 'meanness of our time...'
Former New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer Jr., who served on the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, said there may be many contributing factors to the rise in grievances.
"Late in my tenure on the committee, we started seeing complaints based on judges' social media activity, which raised issues such as whether if a judge 'friended' someone on Facebook, that 'friendship' should have required recusal," remarked Farmer, who has also served as the dean of the Rutgers University School of Law. "Advancing technology, in other words, has increased the opportunities for potential misconduct to occur, and has also lowered the wall of relative social isolation behind which judges have traditionally functioned."
He noted, too, there are more judges in New Jersey.
"With that expanded pool, again, has come an increased likelihood that misconduct can occur," he said.
More difficult to quantify, Farmer suggested, is that the numbers may reflect the "meanness of our time", in which honest disagreements are more likely to become personal and adverse rulings are more likely to be ascribed to bias or misconduct than to the simple fact that a judge disagrees with a party's position.
"Having said all of that, it was true during my tenure and I assume it remains true that the vast majority of complaints filed against judges are investigated and dismissed," Farmer said. "This state has a deserved reputation for the high quality and ethical standards of its judiciary, particularly by comparison with states like Pennsylvania, where In years gone by Supreme Court Justices, as well as dozens of sitting judges, have been prosecuted for various forms of corruption."
Beyond the vetting issue raised by Smith, the attorney said another reason for the overall increase in the number of complaints may also stem from unhappy litigants in divorce and child custody cases.
"I know a lot of the complaints are in family court. There is a father's movement and one of their goals is to attack judges," she remarked.
Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, said in a statement that as an organization, the judiciary "holds all judges to the highest of standards" and communicates those standards through regular training.
"The judiciary's commitment to judicial ethics is reflected in the work of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which consists of retired judges, attorneys and laypersons who investigate allegations of unethical conduct. If the committee finds probable cause for the imposition of public discipline against a judge, it issues a formal complaint and all further proceedings are made public," he said.
Grant said while the number of complaints against judges fluctuates on a yearly basis, "the statistics continue to show that the vast majority of judges are hardworking and dedicated and conscientious about complying with judicial canons and procedures."
Discipline of judges in New Jersey can take various forms.
If the ACJC investigates a complaint and believes that the judge has violated the Judicial Code of Conduct, it may choose to discipline the judge privately. Or the committee, which is headed by retired Justice Virginia A. Long, can recommend that the Supreme Court issue public discipline against the judge, ranging from admonition to censure, suspension, or removing the judge from the bench.
Only the New Jersey Supreme Court may publicly discipline a judge.
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