The small claims court trial of Phil Rizzo, the former congressional and gubernatorial candidate accused of bilking Morris County Republicans out of $1,500, is set to start on Monday but now he’s asking for a change of venue and accusing Superior Court Judge David J. Weaver of being unable to treat him fairly.
Ronald Berutti, Rizzo’s attorney, alleges that the lawsuit involves “sensitive political issues” and is “tied to state senators who hold sway over judicial appointments and the judiciary of Morris County.”
“Rizzo believes he cannot get a fair trial in the county since he is attacking the credibility and the honesty of such organization, which holds sway in the county courthouse,” Berutti stated.
But Weaver is a Democrat who was named Sussex County Prosecutor by two Democratic governors, James E. McGreevey and Jon Corzine, and is now a tenured judge one year away from retirement.
The attorney for the Morris GOP, Joseph Bell IV, slammed the Rizzo camp in his court filings.
“It appears that in the haste to cast aspersions as to the character and integrity of certain members of the state legislature and of the Morris County judiciary, (Rizzo) neglected to consider that His Honor, as a Sussex County resident, was recommended for appointment to the bench by the state senator from the 24th legislative district, which is not the same district from which members of the judiciary residing within Morris County would be recommended for appointment under the so-called “Senatorial Courtesy” process,” Bell said.
Republicans are suing Rizzo for failing to pay a $1,500 bill for setting up a table at the GOP county convention in March, when Rizzo was seeking party support for his congressional bid in New Jersey’s 7th district.
Rizzo offered to settle the case by promising that he wouldn’t disparage the GOP organization, if he could get a non-disclosure agreement from the party. He also threatened a countersuit, which he subsequently filed, claiming that a $600 ad he paid for was never used by the Morris Republicans.
The vanquished candidate has now appeared in court twice and sought multiple adjournments, and Weaver indicated earlier this month that there would be no more delays.
In addition the change in venue motion, Rizzo is demanding an in-person trial; Weaver has been handling small claims court issues virtually, a move that allows plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses in small-dollar cases a way to avoid spending the day at the courthouse.
“Video and phone conferences are no substitute for seeing the body language of one’s adversaries, the witnesses, and the judge, and to be so seen,” Berutti said. “The compulsory trial by video denies attorneys with the ability to appear at a time when the pandemic no longer exists in a material way.”
Berutti says that Weaver’s decision to hold a virtual trial deprives Rizzo of his constitutional rights.
“The rooted in the English common law. Making the freedoms created through the English common law permanent as constitutional fixtures was a primary object of the first amendments ratification and extended into the realm of trial practice,” Berutti argued.