Judge James F. Russo appears during his hearing before the state Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
Doug Hood, Asbury Park Press
TRENTON, N.J. – A court advisory committee cited “emotional immaturity” in recommending that Superior Court Judge John F. Russo Jr. of Toms River, New Jersey, be suspended without pay for three months for misconduct that included asking a woman who said she was raped if she had closed her legs during the assault.
The advisory committee’s findings were released Wednesday. Ultimately, Russo’s punishment will be up to the state Supreme Court.
All of the committee’s members agreed that four instances of misconduct by Russo were aggravated by comments he made to his court staff following the hearing in which he asked the alleged rape victim whether she tried to fend off the attack by keeping her legs closed.
A complaint filed last August records the conversation between Russo — the respondent — and the woman — who was a plaintiff in the sexual assault case:
RESPONDENT: Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?
RESPONDENT: How would you do that?
PLAINTIFF: I’d probably physically harm them somehow.
RESPONDENT: Short of physically harming them?
PLAINTIFF: Tell them no.
RESPONDENT: Tell them no. What else?
PLAINTIFF: To stop.
RESPONDENT: To stop. What else?
PLAINTIFF: And to run away or try to get away.
RESPONDENT: Run away, get away. Anything else?
PLAINTIFF: I – – that’s all I know.
RESPONDENT: Block your body parts?
RESPONDENT: Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?
At the conclusion of that hearing, the courtroom’s recording system was still on after the parties to the dispute left the courtroom, and Russo could be heard saying, “What did you think of that? Did you hear the sex stuff?”
During the banter with his staff, Russo went on to say, “Oh, my God, that was — was that great?” and “What I lack in handwriting skills, I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”
Five members of the committee, including three retired judges, said Russo’s misconduct was “aggravated considerably” by those comments.
They said the comments “demonstrate an emotional immaturity wholly unbefitting the judicial office and incompatible with the decorum expected of every jurist, regardless of their judicial experience.”
In addition to the suspension, the committee recommended that Russo undergo additional training on “appropriate courtroom demeanor” before returning to the bench.
Four of the nine members of the committee thought the punishment should be more severe and recommended a six-month suspension without pay.
Russo’s attorney, Amelia Carolla, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Russo, appointed to the Superior Court bench in Ocean County in December 2015, conducted the controversial questioning of the alleged rape victim on May 17, 2016, during a domestic-violence hearing in which the woman was seeking a final restraining order against the father of her 5-year-old daughter. Russo denied the restraining order and concluded the woman’s testimony was not credible.
The committee said it found Russo’s questioning of the woman “was not only discourteous and inappropriate, but also egregious given the potential for those questions to re-victimize the plaintiff, who sought redress from the court under palpably difficult circumstances.
“This conduct constitutes a significant departure from the courtroom demeanor expected of jurists and impugns (Russo’s) integrity and most notably that of the Judiciary,” the panel wrote.
The committee said Russo’s other judicial code violations were:
- Using his position as a judge to attempt to influence the scheduling of a guardianship hearing in Burlington County involving his son.
- Failing to recuse himself in a spousal support matter involving a couple he acknowledged he went to high school with.
- Having improper communications with only one of two parties to a paternity matter.
Russo has previously faced allegations that he had exhibited problematic behavior such as succumbing to fits of rage or exhibiting an inappropriate courtroom demeanor.
Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford previously addressed Russo’s alleged offensive behavior, including ordering him to remove a “poop emoji” that was allegedly hanging in his chambers.
Russo has claimed in a lawsuit that Ford and another judge discriminated against him because he has a disabled son. That suit is pending in federal court.
Contributing: Joel Shannon, USA TODAY; Follow Kathleen Hopkins on Twitter: @KHopkinsapp
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