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Judge Removed for Questions to Rape Victim, Other Misconduct

May 26, 2020, 9:31 PM

A New Jersey judge will be removed for repeated and serious misconduct, including asking a woman who complained of rape whether she’d tried to close her legs or otherwise resist the assault, the state supreme court said.

Superior Court Judge John F. Russo Jr. was accused by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct of four counts of misconduct. The most serious matter concerned Russo’s conduct surrounding a hearing for a woman seeking a restraining order against a man she alleged threatened her life, sexually assaulted her, and made inappropriate comments to their five-year-old daughter.

At the hearing the plaintiff testified the defendant raped her. During cross-examination Russo took over questioning and asked her if she knew “how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you,” and suggested she could have blocked her “body parts,” closed her legs, or called the police.

“No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said. The questions were wholly unwarranted and inappropriate, and “shamed the alleged victim by intolerably suggesting that she was to blame,” he added.

The court rejected Russo’s argument that he was trying to help a “demoralized” witness get “re-engaged in the hearing,” finding that the plaintiff had clearly testified about the alleged assault and other acts of domestic violence without needing any assistance from the judge.

Moreover, sexual assault “turns on the alleged aggressor’s use of physical force, not the victim’s state of mind or resistance,” the court added. Yet Russo declined to issue the restraining order, saying the plaintiff wasn’t credible, citing in part her answers to his questions.

Russo’s comments after the hearing were “just as problematic,” the court said. Among other statements, he told court staff that he’d think the plaintiff, as a former exotic dancer, would know how to fend off unwanted sexual contact, and said, “I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”

These comments were demeaning and sophomoric, and no reasonable victim in domestic violence or sexual assault cases “could have confidence in a court system were he to preside over those kinds of cases again,” it added.

Russo’s other misconduct included asking a high-level court employee who worked in the same courthouse to reschedule a court hearing date in a personal guardianship matter involving Russo, his ex-wife, and their son; vacating a warrant in a child support case in which Russo knew the defendant since high school; and threatening the mother in a paternity case with financial penalties and a loss of credibility with the court when she said she was scared to disclose her address.

Russo will be removed immediately and permanently barred from holding judicial office in the state, the court concluded.

The Corrigan Law Firm and Reisman, Carolla, Gran, Zuba LLP represented Russo.

The case is In re: Russo, N.J., D-100-18, 5/26/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Flood in Washington at bflood@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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