Temporary judge told litigants he knew 'zero' about matrimonial law, ethics complaint alleges

  • Print

New Jersey gavel

Image from Shutterstock.

Updated: A New Jersey civil court judge on temporary assignment to the family division professed ignorance of the law and little knowledge of the cases before him, an ethics complaint alleges.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed an ethics complaint against Judge Michael J. Kassel of the Camden County Superior Court in New Jersey on April 19.

On 16 occasions, Kassel “remarked to litigants and their counsel appearing before him that he lacked familiarity with their case, was ignorant of the applicable law, and incapable of adjudicating family court matters,” the complaint alleges.

At one point, Kassel compared himself to an obstetrician who had to treat broken bones, the complaint alleges. Another time, he compared himself to a cardiologist seeing his first patient, according to the complaint. He allegedly told one litigant that he had “zero matrimonial knowledge.”

“Frankly, you could get a guy off the street that’s more experienced than me with this stuff,” he allegedly told other litigants.

He also is accused of appearing in the courtroom for a virtual hearing with his feet propped up on the desk and without wearing a judicial robe.

On another occasion, Kassel is accused of failing to recuse himself, even though a lawyer in the case had successfully sought to dismiss a drunken-driving charge against Kassel when he was a prosecutor 11 years ago. Kassel disclosed what happened and told the parties that he “liked” the lawyer but said he could nonetheless remain impartial.

Some specific allegations say Kassel:

• Told litigants and their counsel that he knew very little about the applicable laws because he had not served in the family division for two decades. He said he hadn’t read all the documents and hadn’t understood those that he had read but would hear the matter if the lawyers agreed to walk him through their issues and treat him “like I’m a ninth grader in high school.”

• Told litigants that he had to interrupt a jury trial in the civil division to be in the family division, and he has “no idea what’s going on in this case, zero. So you’re dealing with a judge that is completely inexperienced and untrained in the family division.” He told the lawyers to “walk me through the case like they were walking a fairly well-educated, first-year law student.”

• Told litigants and their counsel that he had done some paperwork, but to be “perfectly candid,” he doesn’t “understand some of this stuff.”

• Told litigants that it had been nearly 20 years since he sat in the family division. “Everybody ought to be aware of my own limitations,” he allegedly said. “I’m not an expert in family law. It’s not my choice division. I’ll do the best I can. I know zero about this case. I have some documents before me, which I’ll be glad to look through.”

• Told litigants that he thought that the court rule allowing verbally stated opposition without advance notice is “very unfair” and “extraordinarily unfair.” He called the rule “a horrendous situation on top of an already-horrendous situation. These are the cards I’ve been dealt.”

• When commenting on a motion with 150 exhibits, encouraged the parties to submit something shorter. “I don’t have the time, especially with over 75 civil motions, and everything else going on, especially in the family division,” he said.

• Told the parties before the start of a hearing that, “I did peruse the papers, I use the term liberally, peruse, all this stuff.” He also said he had “zero, zero matrimonial knowledge.”

• Told the parties that, “I don’t have the capacity to read through paperwork and financials to understand. I just don’t. That’s the reality.”

Kassell had been temporarily reassigned to the division one day per week from April 10, 2021, to June 15, 2021.

Kassell’s office directed a reporter’s request for comment to the court administrator’s office. The office did not immediately respond.

In an answer to the ethics complaint filed Wednesday, Kassel said he had “a completely unblemished disciplinary record” during his career, Law360 reports.

Kassel said he regretted his comments about inexperience in the family division. Those comments “failed to promote public confidence in the judiciary,” he said.

Kassel added that his inappropriate comments were usually coupled with his stated reasons for the disclosure, his vow to do his best, and his request to be walked through the motions. He also said audio recordings would reveal that he was respectful and courteous to lawyers and litigants.

He also added context to some of his comments, according to Law360. When he said a “guy off the street” would be more experienced than him, he was suggesting that a mediator handle the matter. When he complained about a lack of time, he said he could handle the matter on another day or said he was trying to be fair to parties waiting longer.

In the drunken-driving case, Kassel said he had no duty to recuse. The case was dismissed, he said, because of findings that he had taken prescribed sleep medication and had not consumed alcohol.

Hat tip to Law360, the New Jersey Monitor and NJ.com, which had coverage of the case.

Updated April 28 at 8:45 a.m. to add information from Judge Michael J. Kassel’s answer to the complaint.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.