The emerging controversy over comments made by Superior Court Judges Marcia Silva (Middlesex) and James Troiano (Ocean) in unconnected rape cases casts a spotlight on a state judiciary that sometimes appears to operate under one set of ethics rules for themselves and another for everybody else.
New Jersey, where state court judges get tenure after seven years and may serve until their 70th birthday, there seems to be an epidemic of ethical challenges – and a history of slaps on the wrist for a judiciary that effectively polices themselves.
In nearly all cases, another political appointee accused of similar offenses would have lost their jobs. An elected official facing similar charges would have faced pressure to resign.
Action on allegations of judicial misconduct is never immediate. Sometimes the ethics process takes years to reach a conclusion.
The state Supreme Court on Tuesday heard the disciplinary case of Judge John Russo (Ocean), who faces suspension for asking an alleged rape victim if she tried to prevent the assault by keeping her legs closed.
The Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct split on their recommendation for Russo’s penalty: five members said a three-month suspension, and four wanted six-month suspension.
Now that’s up to the Supreme Court to decide – but so far, only State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) has called for Russo to just resign. Gov. Phil Murphy dodged the question.
Murphy similarly refused to say if Silva and Troiano should resign, although thirteen legislators so far have done exactly that, including Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Right now, the New Jersey Supreme Court has seven pending judicial complaints before them, including seven municipal court judges. Over the past decade, fifteen Superior Court Judges and twelve Municipal Court Judges have faced disciplinary action.
Those numbers don’t include incidences when the judicial conduct panel chooses to deal privately with an ethical complaint, as they did last year with Judge Louis Sceusi (Morris). In those cases, no public records exist.
Complaints against Superior Court Judges
Ethics charges are still pending against Judge Carlia Brady (Middlesex), who was told by police that her live-in boyfriend was wanted for robbing a pharmacy but didn’t notify police when he showed up at her house.
Brady was charged criminally with official misconduct and hindering the apprehension of a suspect, but the charges were dropped following an Appellate Court decision that said the boyfriend, now serving a ten-year prison sentence, could not be forced to testify against the judge.
Appointed to the bench by Gov. Chris Christie, she took office in April 2013 and was suspended two months later. She was reinstated to the bench in March 2018 following the dismissal of the criminal charges against her. The Supreme Court continues to mull the ethics complaint.
Brady is up for tenure next April and Murphy must decide whether to reappoint her to a tenured term that could keep her on the bench until she turns 70 in 2041.
Judge Deborah Gross-Quatrone (Essex) received a two-month suspension earlier this year for secretly recording a meeting with the presiding judge and then lying about it.
Gross-Quatrone joined the bench in March 2015 and is up for tenure in 2022.
Last November, Judge James Palmer (Ocean) was censured for invoking the forbidden “Do You Know Who I Am”” line. He showed up at the county probation office and identified himself as a judge as he sought to resolve a child support issue dealing with his ex-wife.
Palmer, a judge since 2009, has tenure and can serve until 2027, when he turns 70.
Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi (Passaic) was removed from the bench last September after the Supreme Court found that she misused her office by helping a friend in a child custody matter and then lied to investigators in an attempted cover-up.
DeAvila-Silebi told police there was court order to give her friend custody of her son on Mother’s Day weekend when such an order never existed.
She later altered phone records to hide calls with her friend.
The state revoked Liliana DeAvila-Silebi’s pension earlier this year.
In another “Do You Know Who I Am” incident, Judge Carolyn Wright (Essex) was reprimanded for attempting to bypass the traditional judicial process in seeking to get an immediate custody hearing for a close family friend. Her pursuit of special treatment created a year-long ethics case.
The incident that got Wright in trouble came three months after the Senate voted to give her tenure in 2016. She is on the bench until 2030.
Judge Theresa Mullen (Union) was found guilty of trespassing after she confronted administrators at a Catholic school that had expelled two of her children and refused to leave.
Mullen sued the Archdiocese for refusing to allow her daughter to play on the boys’ basketball team, and then filed another suit claiming the that her children were expelled in retaliation.
The incident occurred in early 2017 and an ethics complaint filed against her in May 2018 is still pending. She was appointed to the Superior Court in 2014 and is up for reappointment in October 2021. If she gets tenure, Mullen could serve on the bench until 2037.
In 2016, one month after the Supreme Court reprimanded Judge Joseph Portelli (Passaic) for making sexist comments from the bench, the New Jersey Senate confirmed his renomination to the court.
According to an ethics complaint filed against him, Portelli would invite children in his courtroom to sit on his lap. Once, he said to a female attorney “no, you can’t come sit on my lap next.” He reportedly told another female attorney that he enjoyed watching her “shove it up” another attorney’s “ass.”
Portelli got points for accepting responsibility for his actions, showing remorse, and apologizing.
Judge Gerald Council was the presiding judge in Mercer County when the judicial conduct committee found that he inappropriately twice touched a court employee. In one of those incidents, Council reportedly dragged the employee by her ear and pulled her out of the room.
For that, the Supreme Court suspended Council for one month. He lost his leadership role and was transferred to Middlesex County.
The incident took place in 2012 and wasn’t resolved until 2015.
In 2009, Council faced an ethics complaint for releasing his second cousin – the granddaughter of his uncle – from jail without bail. She had been arrested on aggravated assault charges. The Supreme Court reprimanded him for that and permitted him to remain as the presiding judge.
Council, a former assistant counsel to Gov. Tom Kean, has served on the bench since 1998 and still has nine years before he reaches retirement age.
Once an associate at Gilmore and Monahan, the law firm once headed by powerful Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore, Melanie Appleby was serving as a Toms River councilwoman when Christie nominated her to the Superior Court in 2011.
Appleby was accused of presiding over cases where one of the attorneys was providing the judge with legal assistance related to a child support battle with her ex-husband. The attorney used the letterhead of another law firm to hide his role in assisting Appleby.
She was suspended for one month in 2014 and retired from the bench in 2016, two years before she was up for renomination.
Judge Joseph Isabella (Hudson) was admonished by the Supreme Court in 2014 for using his official letterhead in a request that the Nutley Board of Education pay $4,000 so that the special needs son of his girlfriend could attend summer camp.
The judge fought disciplinary action, saying his actions were “unintentional.”
Isabella, a judge since 2000, is tenured and may remain on the bench until 2028.
Supreme Court ethics issues
The Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Associate Justice Robert Clifford, who was convicted of drunk driving, in 1990. The court said that “a public reprimand is essential both to vindicate the interests of the judiciary and to maintain the public’s confidence in it.”
Four months earlier, Clifford was stopped for driving while intoxicated in Princeton Borough. He refused a Breathalyzer test and was taken to the local police station. Later, he pleaded guilty and lost his license for one year.
Clifford served on the state Supreme Court from 1973 to 1994. He was arrested again for DWI in 2000 when his vehicle struck a small bridge in his hometown, Bernards. Because Clifford’s earlier conviction was more than ten years ago, the law allowed him to be viewed as a first-time offender.
In 2007, Associate Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto was censured by the Supreme Court for his role in a 2006 incident involving his son and a teammate on a high school football team.
The court agreed with the judicial conduct panel that Rivera-Soto “engaged in a course of conduct that created a risk that the prestige and power of his judicial office might influence and advance a private matter.”
The Supreme Court found that Rivera-Soto used his position to influence a Camden County Superior Court Judge presiding over a dispute involving his son’s high school football team. Rivera-Soto was accused of using or allowing “the power and prestige of his office as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to influence or advance the private interests of his family and his son.”
According to a complaint, the Justice’s son, playing touch football with Haddonfield Township High School classmates, was involved in a “head-butting” incident that may or may not have been intentional.
Rivera-Soto upset with the school’s failure to discipline the other student involved — and after threatening to involve the State Police — called the local Police Chief’s cell phone to demand an investigation. The Justice eventually filed a criminal complaint against his son’s teammate.
The complaint additionally alleged that Rivera-Soto “referred or alluded to his judicial office” during a telephone conversation with the Superintendent of Schools, and personally called the Assignment Judge, the acting Camden County Prosecutor, and other court officials to discuss the case.
Rivera-Soto, nominated to the Supreme Court in 2004, asked not to be reappointed when his seven-year term came to an end in 2011.
Only in New Jersey
The most unreal story of all may be Administrative Law Judge Florence Schreiber Powers, who was convicted of shoplifting a pair of $29 watches from T.J. Maxx in Lawrenceville in 1991.
Powers, the daughter of retired state Supreme Court Justice Sidney Schreiber, admitted that she stole the two watches but claimed diminished mental capacity. A psychologist who testified at her trail outlined nineteen different stresses, including an “ungodly” vaginal itch.
Among the other reasons the Judge lifted the two watches, according to published reports: menopausal hot flashes, a bad rash, a toilet that would “not stop flushing,” problems with a wallpaper job that caused her to file a lawsuit, proposed dental surgery, preparations for her parents wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving dinner (she had twenty guests), holiday shopping (she needed to buy 200 gifts), a traffic accident that caused her to miss two weeks of work and buy a new car, selling her house without the services of a realtor – and a toilet that just wouldn’t stop running.
After a two-day trial, a Superior but said a $250 fine was enough punishment.
“I find no reason to believe that defendant cannot continue to perform the functions and duties of her office in a manner consistent with her oath,” said Judge Samuel Lenox. “Indeed, this experience will probably cause her to perform at an even higher level of dedication than she has in the past.”
The Office of Attorney Ethics took no disciplinary action against Powers.
Gov. Jim Florio declined to reappoint her to the bench.
Powers later worked as Assistant Chief of the Municipal Court Services Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts.