A Jersey Shore judge who asked a rape victim whether she tried closing her legs to fend off the assault was permanently removed from the bench by the state Supreme Court.
The justices unanimously agreed that “insensitive, threatening and discourteous, comments he made in his Ocean County courtroom – particularly toward the sex assault victim -- warranted the removal of Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr.
He’s also prohibited from ever becoming a judge in New Jersey again.
The former Toms River mayor had been suspended pending the final decision of the state’s highest court for asking the rape victim, who’d come seeking a restraining order against her alleged attacker -- if she could have closed her legs during the assault.
The state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) described Russo’s comments as “wholly unwarranted, discourteous and inappropriate.”
"Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?” Russo reported asked the woman.
She said she would run or “try to get away.”
Russo, in turn, asked whether she could’ve done anything else – “Block your body parts? Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
It’s “inconceivable” that Russo could hear sex assault or domestic violence cases, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote.
“No reasonable victim could have confidence in a court system were he to preside over those kinds of cases again,” the chief justice explained.
Russo’s attorney contended during a Supreme Court disciplinary hearing in July 2019 that the judge was trying to help a “demoralized” witness and “get her re-engaged in the hearing.”
The justices rejected that argument.
“No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law,” Rabner wrote.
“Judges set the tone for a courtroom,” he added. “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 chief justice wrote.
The Supreme Court decision cites other instances, as well, that it says constitute a “pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior.”
In one, it says, Russo threatened to fine a mother in a paternity case when she wouldn’t reveal her address.
“He’s going to find you, ma’am,” Russo reportedly said. “We’re all going to find you.”
“(Russo’s) disturbing comments and questions Rabner wrote in the court’s opinion.
In another case, Russo slashed the amount of child support a man he went to high school had to pay from $10,000 to $300.
The incident raised “doubts about Russo’s impartiality,” Rabner wrote.
“His pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior not only undermined the integrity of different court proceedings but also impaired his integrity and the Judiciary’s,” the chief justice noted. “His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity and fitness to serve as a judge. And his conduct breached the public’s trust.”
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