Gov. Phil Murphy and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez slammed Ocean County Superior Court Judge John Russo for comments he made asking an alleged rape victim if she attempted to close her legs to fend off her attacker but stopped short of calling for the embattled judge’s resignation Monday.
“The courts are, as they should be, independently administered, so I have to respect that,” Murphy said when asked if he believed Russo should resign. “But, I found what he said was completely abhorrent — completely out of line.”
The state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct last week recommended Russo be suspended without pay for three months.
The victim was seeking a restraining order against her alleged attacker.
“I think his comments were abominable and certainly not within the judicial temperament that one should exhibit. I leave it to the courts to police themselves, but they should,” Menendez, who said he was unaware of the committee’s recommendation, told the New Jersey Globe. “That’s it? It’s a pretty lenient response.”
State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), who appeared alongside Murphy and Menendez at an unrelated press conference on Hurricane Sandy relief aid Monday, did not hesitate to call for Russo’s resignation.
Gopal went further, suggesting that lawmakers in Trenton would take action to ensure harsher punishments for judges in Russo’s position.
“His comments were disgraceful, and I’m not sure when he’s up for reappointment, but I hope based on those comments the Judiciary Committee seriously considers not reappointing him,” Gopal said. “We should be looking at legislation, and it should be across the board.”
Former Gov. Chris Christie appointed Russo, a former Toms River mayor, to the bench in 2015. His term expires in 2022, meaning Murphy will only be able to replace him if he wins a second term in 2021.
Russo’s comments to the alleged rape victim are not the first to land him in hot water.
In 2016, Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford admonished Russo for creating a “potential hostile work environment” related to his treatment of his law clerks.
One of his former clerks, Valisha Desir, is suing Russo for, among other things, sexual harassment.
The judge was placed on paid administrative leave for 20 months, starting in April 2017, but was reinstated late last year.
“His comments were beyond disgraceful,” Gopal said. “It shows a 1920s-mentality, if anything.”