Judge is accused of 'extreme and personal' hostility toward lawyer
A municipal judge in New Jersey is accused in an ethics complaint of hostile treatment of a defense lawyer, resulting in an acrimonious relationship that became so well-known in the legal community that mutual colleagues tried to intervene.
The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed the complaint (PDF) against Judge Peter Locascio, who presides in the New Jersey towns of Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, the New Jersey Law Journal reports. The complaint was made public Aug. 7.
According to the complaint, Locascio’s hostility toward the unnamed lawyer was “extreme and personal, and harmed the attorney’s clients by delaying their cases, wasting their time and resources, and creating embarrassment and confusion for them during their court appearances.”
The problems began in August 2008 when Locascio asked the lawyer in court why he failed to appear for a March 24, 2008, calendar call, according to the ethics complaint. The lawyer said he faxed a letter to the court entering an appearance on the day he was retained and requested a postponement.
The letter said the client was out of town and the lawyer was scheduled to appear in a different court at the same time. The lawyer said his office mistakenly said the hearing was postponed and he took responsibility for the mistake. The lawyer also apologized, more than once, the ethics complaint says.
The judge questioned the lawyer to determine if he was telling the truth, made the lawyer wait while he considered what to do, and told the lawyer he wouldn’t consider sanctions unless it happened again. The lawyer agreed sanctions would be appropriate if it happened again, adding, “I don’t accept, judge, a suggestion that somehow this is a pattern, because it’s not.”
According to the complaint, Locascio told the lawyer, “It sounds like you’re scolding me, and I’m little bit offended.”
When the lawyer said he wasn’t, Locascio continued: “I know what happened. You told your guy not to come to court, even though your secretary or somebody asked and it was denied. And I’ll tell you what, if it was for [the municipal prosecutor], I would be banging with the sanctions right now. And you’re standing up and telling me I’m wrong? I find that offensive. I mean, it’s a word to the wise, I’m trying to warn you for the future and you’re standing up and telling me I’m wrong. Maybe I am wrong, maybe I should impose the sanctions now. Is that what you’re telling me, I’m wrong?”
The relationship between the lawyer and judge deteriorated in additional court appearances the next year, the complaint says, though the lawyer wrote to Locascio and offered to meet with him to resolve their differences. Locascio didn’t respond. “The hostility between respondent and the attorney became so extreme,” the complaint says, “that word of their acrimonious relationship spread among the surrounding legal community. Mutual friends and colleagues intervened to attempt to resolve the hostility between respondent and the attorney to no avail.”
The lawyer sought the recusal of Locascio in a pending matter, but the judge didn’t act until a mutual friend brokered a deal in which Locascio would transfer the matter to a different court in exchange for the lawyer’s agreement not to appear before the judge for a year. After the year passed, the lawyer filed two more recusal motions. Locascio didn’t rule, but he finally sent the lawyer’s cases to the assignment judge, who transferred them to a different judge.
In the lawyer’s cases before Locascio, the complaint says, the judge “frustrated and prolonged the attorney’s routine requests for adjournments, return dates on motions, status conferences and plea-by-mail.”
The complaint also alleges that Locascio failed to recuse himself in cases involving another lawyer who was a close friend and personal lawyer for Locascio.
Locascio’s lawyer, Donald Lomurro, told the New Jersey Law Journal he couldn’t comment on the complaint because he was recently retained. But he said Locascio has an excellent record in his 12 years on the bench and 42 years as a lawyer.