Legal Ethics

Judge faces possible suspension for quizzing woman about how to avoid rape, ‘infantile’ remarks to staff

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An advisory committee is recommending a three-month suspension for a New Jersey judge who asked a woman seeking a restraining order whether she could have avoided forced sex with her alleged attacker by closing her legs.

A majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct recommended a three-month suspension and training on courtroom demeanor for Judge John Russo, the former mayor of Toms River. A minority said the suspension should be for six months. The Asbury Park Press,, the New York Times and the Washington Post have coverage.

Russo erred by asking discourteous and inappropriate questions, and his conduct was “aggravated considerably” by “infantile and grossly inappropriate” remarks he made to court staff after the hearing, the committee said. The recording system was still on when Russo made the remarks, after the parties had exited the courtroom.

Russo asked court staffers: “What did you think of that? Did you hear the sex stuff?”

After a discussion of other matters, including a staff member’s neat penmanship, Russo returned to the topic of his questions. “What I lack in handwriting skills, I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face,” Russo said.

A transcript recounts the questions that Russo had asked during the hearing. He had asked whether the woman knew how to stop men from having intercourse with her. She replied that she could physically harm them, tell them to stop, and run away.

“Anything else?” Russo had asked.

“That’s all I know,” the woman replied.

“Block your body parts?” Russo asked.

“Yeah,” the woman replied.

“Close your legs? Call the police?” Russo asked. “Did you do any of those things?”

Russo had said he asked the questions to help the woman recount a traumatic event, and his remarks afterward were part of an effort to instruct his law clerk about the complexities of presiding in domestic violence matters.

Russo expressed embarrassment at the later remarks, and he said learned how to deal with court staff better after subsequent training. “His professed ignorance in this regard, whether real or contrived, neither justifies nor excuses his actions and serves to aggravate his misconduct,” the committee said.

The committee also found that Russo had committed three other acts of misconduct. According to the committee, Russo:

• Used his position as a judge to try to reschedule a guardianship hearing for his disabled adult son.

• Failed to recuse himself in a case in which he knew the litigants when they all went to high school together.

• Called a mother about compliance with a paternity test without including the father in the call.

Russo is also facing a lawsuit by a former law clerk who alleges sexual harassment and discrimination, the Asbury Park Press reports. The plaintiff had alleged that Russo threw a file at her, invaded her personal space, remarked that his wife thought she was too attractive to work with him, and asked whether all the children in her family had the same father.

Russo has been transferred from the family court division in Ocean County to a position hearing civil cases in Burlington County.

See also: “Judge explains why he asked a woman whether she could avoid rape by closing her legs”

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