A New Jersey Superior Court judge could be suspended for three months without pay after asking an alleged sexual assault victim if she tried closing her legs to prevent the attack, according to a court advisory panel.
The panel this week released a 45-page recommendation in the case of John Russo Jr., a family court judge in Ocean County, N.J. Their investigation, which included interviews with Russo and nearly two dozen other individuals, determined that the judge may have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct numerous times in recent years.
The example cited came during his questioning of a woman seeking a restraining order against the father of her 5-year-old daughter in 2016. She told the judge the man had sexually assaulted her.
According to a transcript from the panel’s recommendation, Russo asked the woman, who also claimed the defendant had threatened her life, “do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?”
She responded by stating she could try to physically harm her assailant in addition to saying “no” and attempting to flee.
But the judge continued his questioning: “Run away, get away. Anything else?”
She responded: “I — that’s all I know.”
Russo: “Block your body parts?”
Russo: “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
The transcript indicates Russo continued to press the plaintiff on her efforts to prevent the alleged assault, requesting specific details on the steps she took — actions the committee found discourteous, inappropriate and “egregious given the potential for those questions to re-victimize the plaintiff, who sought redress from the court under palpably difficult circumstances.”
Russo’s use of hypothetical scenarios, they added, was “unwarranted” and not necessary in determining whether a restraining order should be issued. The judge ultimately denied the woman’s request, according to the committee, invoking her answers to those questions as part of his decision.
The judge argued that his questioning was necessary to “demonstrate the element of force or coercion used during the assault,” according to the committee. He denies it was a suggestion that a sexual assault victim could prevent an attack using these methods. Instead, he wanted to “aid the plaintiff in recounting a traumatic event.”
Although he denied impropriety, the committee also said Russo indicated he would not ask those types of questions to an alleged sexual assault victim again.
But Russo’s offenses didn’t end there, according to the committee. In a conversation with his staff, Russo reportedly spoke flippantly about the case, asking, “What did you think of that? Did you hear the sex stuff?” His comments were “infantile and grossly inappropriate,” the committee wrote.
Russo said last month that his comments to the woman didn’t reflect on his handling of the case and argued that the complaint contained factual inaccuracies, according to NJ.com.
Russo’s attorney, David Corrigan, told NBC New York that the judge “looks forward to a public hearing in which he will be able to respond to the allegations against him.”
“We have respect for the process as well as the advisory committee on judicial conduct, and therefore won’t comment further,” Corrigan told NBC New York.
The committee’s recommendation also described three other instances in which Russo allegedly violated rules of conduct.
In one case, they allege, he used his authority as a judge to reschedule a guardianship hearing to better accommodate his schedule. Another time, they say, he failed to recuse himself in a spousal support case involving a couple he knew from high school. In this case, the panel said, Russo reversed the decision of another judge after the man was arrested on a bench warrant for failing to pay $10,000 in alimony to his ex-wife. Russo reduced that figure to $300, according to the recommendation.
Lastly, the panel said, the judge improperly spoke to the mother in a paternity case without the father being present. Russo said his actions violated the Code of Judicial Conduct in the final two allegations, according to the recommendation.
The nine-member committee was split on its recommendation. Five members of the panel advised he be suspended without pay for three months, and four recommended a longer, six-month sentence, citing the “juvenile” off-the-record remarks he is said to have made in the case involving the alleged sexual assault.
“Given the severity of this misconduct and its effect on the overall atmosphere in [Russo’s] courtroom, we believe a suspension of six months, without pay, is more appropriate and conveys most directly the Judiciary’s intolerance for such behavior,” the panel wrote.
It also recommends Russo attend training on “appropriate courtroom demeanor” upon returning to the bench.
Russo was placed on administrative leave in 2017, according to the Associated Press. He will have a chance to respond to the panel’s recommendation before the matter is decided in July.