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Judge is removed from bench after asking woman whether she closed her legs to prevent rape
BY DEBRA CASSENS WEISS
MAY 28, 2020, 11:05 AM CDT
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday removed a judge from the bench who asked a woman whether she had tried to close her legs to stop a sexual assault.
The court ordered the removal of Judge John Russo in a May 26 decision.
The woman was in Russo’s Ocean County courtroom in 2016 to seek a final restraining order against her alleged assailant. Russo took over questioning after cross-examination by defense counsel. The judge asked the woman whether she had tried to block her body parts, close her legs, call police or leave.
The questions were unwarranted, inappropriate and discourteous, the supreme court said in an opinion by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “No witness, alleged victim or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law,” the court said.
Russo claimed the woman was a demoralized witness, and he was trying to help her get reengaged in the hearing. But that explanation “does not square with the record,” the court said. “The plaintiff plainly testified that defendant forced her to have sexual intercourse against her will. She also described other acts of alleged domestic violence. And she did so without needing any assistance from the trial judge to express herself.”
“Beyond that,” the court said, Russo’s “coarse questions about how the plaintiff responded during the alleged assault were not relevant.” Sexual assault in New Jersey turns on the use of physical force by the alleged assailant, not the victim’s state of mind or resistance.
Just as problematic were Russo’s comments to court staff after the hearing, the court said. Russo asked whether staffers heard “the sex stuff” and said he was the master of “being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”
“Judges set the tone for a courtroom,” the court said. “Especially when it comes to sensitive matters like domestic violence and sexual assault, that tone must be dignified, solemn and respectful, not demeaning or sophomoric. [Russo] failed in that regard.”
The court said Russo also committed misconduct in three instances.
• Russo ruled in a hearing even though he stated at the outset that he knew both the defendant and his wife since high school. The defendant was arrested after failing to comply with a judge’s order to pay. $10,000 out of nearly $145,000 in past-due child support. Russo vacated the arrest warrant and lowered the purge amount from $10,000 to $300 based on the defendant’s uncorroborated financial information.
• Russo made an ex parte call to a mother in a paternity matter who failed to appear in court. When Russo asked for the woman’s address, she said she didn’t want to disclose it because she was afraid. She said the putative father had molested her daughter, and she feared for her son’s safety. Russo threatened the woman with financial penalties and said she wouldn’t be able to keep her address secret. “He’s going to find you, ma’am,” Russo told the woman. “We’re all going to find you.”
• Russo asked the family division manager in his courthouse to intercede in another vicinage to reschedule a guardianship hearing in a personal matter involving himself, his ex-wife and his son. Russo should have worked through his lawyer rather than the manager, the court said.
“The series of ethical failures that [Russo] committed are not errors of law, innocent missteps or isolated words taken out of context,” the court said. “Viewed as a whole, they are flagrant and serious acts of misconduct.”
Russo is a former mayor of Toms River, New Jersey. Law360, Courthouse News Service, Law.com, NJ.com and the Legal Profession Blog had coverage of the decision.