Three seats are up next month on the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the panel that investigates allegations of unethical conduct by New Jersey judges, including two with close ties to Gov. Phil Murphy.
The connection to the executive branch by two individuals with considerable influence over judges could create at least an appearance of conflict for a court that appears increasingly concerned about public opinion amidst an epidemic of controversial statements made is cases involving sexual assault.
Karen Kessler is a highly-regarded crisis communications consultant whose firm, Evergreen Partners, was recently hired by Blue Skye FC, the professional soccer team owned by the governor and run by his wife.
Former State Comptroller Matthew Boxer was retained by the Office of the Governor to represent several top Murphy aides during their testimony before a legislative committee investigating the hiring of Al Alvarez.
The third seat up this year is held by Vincent Gentile, a partner at Drinker Biddle and a former federal prosecutor.
The Supreme Court appoints members of the nine-member committee for three-year terms and relies on them to determine which complaints are worthy of being referred to the top court to impose disciplinary action.
The court is not bound to follow the recommendations of the judicial conduct panel.
In April, the panel found that Superior Court Judge John Russo, Jr. should be suspended without pay for three months after asking a victim if she tried to avoid being raped by holding her legs together.
Five members, including Boxer and Gentile, voted to recommend Russo be suspended for three months. Kessler and three others asked that they suspension be for six months.
Instead, the Supreme Court announced yesterday that they have initiated proceedings to remove Russo from the bench – the toughest possible punishment and substantially more than the judicial conduct panel suggested.
Complaints filed against Superior Court Judge Marcia Silva, who refused to try a 16-year-old boy accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl as an adult, ruling that the victim suffered no emotional, mental or physical harm past the loss of her virginity.
The judiciary yesterday took the unusual step of announcing that the entire court system will close Starbucks-style sometime within the next ninety days so that all judges can receive training on sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
Kessler started out in politics in the 1980s working for the Democratic National Committee. She won rave reviews as a fundraiser for Jim Florio’s 1989 gubernatorial campaign, became the talent scout for Florio’s transition team, served as a commissioner of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, and raised millions for state Democrats in the 1990s.
Her website touts helping clients facing criminal and civil litigation – and notes that she serves as “the only non-attorney on the NJ Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.”
There is no indication that any of Kessler’s clients have had issues before the panel she serves on.
Murphy’s soccer team, which has faced a myriad of public relations nightmares, brought in Kessler – described by the Asbury Park Press as New Jersey’s “go-to scandal fixer” – in April, a month after the judicial conduct panel issues their recommendations in the Russo case.
Boxer joined Lowenstein Sandler in 2014, after serving as comptroller under Governors Jon Corzine and Chris Christie. He appeared at the Alvarez hearings as former Attorney General Christopher Porrino’s co-counsel, sitting at the witness table with various members of the Murphy administration.
Members of the judicial conduct committee are appointed by the full court and are typically limited to four three-year terms. At least three of the nine members must be retired Supreme Court or Superior Court judges.
Kessler was appointed in 2013, while Boxer and Gentile joined the panel the following year.
The Supreme Court currently 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. In those cases, no public records exist.
It is not immediately clear whether Kessler, Boxer and Gentile are seeking reappointment when their current terms expire in August.
E-mails sent to Kessler, Boxer and Gentile at 11:46 AM, 11:47 AM and 11:49 AM, respectively, did not receive an immediate response.