Judge should be ousted after asking woman whether she closed her legs to prevent rape, judicial panel says
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A special panel is rejecting a New Jersey judge’s explanation for why he asked a woman whether she had closed her legs to stop a sexual assault.
Russo had questioned the woman in a 2016 hearing on her request for a temporary restraining order against a man who was the father of her child.
The woman said she had been harassed and sexually assaulted by the man. His harassment included disabling her garage door, breaking her vehicle windshield, and threatening to burn her house down, the woman testified.
The woman said she was only joking when she asked the man, “What time does your wife come home?” and said, “We have a couple minutes.” The man then raped her, she said, even though she had told him to stop and tried to push him away.
During defense questioning, Russo began to ask his own questions. Russo 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 denied the restraining order.
Russo had said he asked the questions because aggressive cross-examination had left the woman demoralized, and he wanted to get her reengaged in the hearing. He had hoped to elicit facts supporting her claim of sexual assault, he said.
The judicial panel wasn’t buying it. “We do not profess to know, nor do we need to divine, exactly why respondent questioned the plaintiff in the admittedly improper way that he did,” the panel said in its opinion. “We find beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that respondent’s stated reason for engaging in the questioning is not worthy of belief.”
In New Jersey, a sexual assault is proven when there is sexual penetration without the consent of the victim. The woman had already testified to the essential elements of sexual assault when Russo questioned her, the panel said.
Russo’s questions “encompassed stereotypic tropes about sexual victimization and domestic violence” and “displayed impatience, discourtesy and a lack of understanding of applicable law,” the panel said.
The panel pointed to another reason why it rejected Russo’s explanation: He engaged in “jocular banter” with his staff after the hearing that was captured on a courtroom recording device.
Russo asked court staffers: “What did you think of that? Did you hear the sex stuff?”
Russo also pointed out to staffers that the woman was a former exotic dancer and said one would think she knows how to fend off an unwanted sexual assault.
After a discussion of other matters, Russo returned to the topic of his questions. “I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face,” Russo said.
The panel said Russo committed other misconduct when he used his position as a judge to reschedule a guardianship hearing for his disabled adult son, failed to recuse himself in a case in which he knew the litigants in high school, and called a mother in a paternity matter without including the father in the call.
The removal recommendation goes to the New Jersey Supreme Court for a decision.
Russo is the former mayor of Toms River.
ABAJournal.com: “Judge explains why he asked a woman whether she could avoid rape by closing her legs”