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Justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court expressed concern last week that suspending Superior Court Judge Rosemarie Williams for misconduct in a personal matter would be a harsh break with precedent and deprive her of all means to make a living. But during Williams’ hearing — the first public ethics proceeding against a New Jersey Superior Court judge since judicial discipline was opened in 1997 — some justices pointed to evidence that Williams tried to mislead an investigating panel. If the court finds that she did, the next step probably would be removal proceedings. Reprimand. Suspension. Removal. These were the options raised by the court, for none of the justices took exception to the guilty finding by a majority of the seven-member Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. Its Dec. 13 presentment said Williams’ behavior during public altercations with an ex-boyfriend violated judicial canons of ethics and merited punishment. Some of the justices didn’t seem thrilled by the ACJC majority’s recommendation of a reprimand rather than tougher punishments championed by three dissenters on the discipline panel. “Isn’t something more than a slap on the wrist appropriate?” Justice James Zazzali asked. Williams’ lawyer, Justin Walder, answered: Given the hurtfulness of the public airing of her case, “there has been more than a slap on the wrist here.” Unfortunately, Zazzali retorted, “Bad publicity is not a penalty within the meaning of the rule.” Williams made notes on a white legal pad as she sat between her lawyers, Justin Walder and Jeffrey Walder, his son and partner at Roseland’s Walder, Sondak & Brogan. She smiled and nodded at reporters but she wouldn’t comment before the hearing or afterward. She is in trouble for engaging in a loud, foul-mouthed public confrontation with her ex-boyfriend and his date at two Trenton, N.J., drinking spots on April 14, 2000, and giving untruthful information to police investigating the incidents immediately afterward. The ACJC majority recommended a reprimand because it said the offense did not implicate her duties as a judge and because it arose out of an isolated, emotion-charged incident with the former boyfriend, a Mercer County sheriff’s deputy. The panel also said she had otherwise good grades as a jurist during her seven years on the bench, first in Mercer County and now in Somerset County, New Jersey. During Tuesday’s hearing, just as ethics prosecutor Patrick Monahan Jr. was warming up his argument that Williams was unfit to be a judge, Justice James Coleman Jr. said he wondered whether there was an important difference between Williams’ actions and those of judges who have been removed from office. Her offense did not arise out of the performance of her duties, Coleman noted. He said, for example, that the court fired Passaic Municipal Judge Wolf Samay last month only after it was found that he used his office to make trouble for personal enemies. Unlike Williams, Samay “poisoned the well of justice,” Coleman suggested. Picking up that theme, Justice Virginia Long said the harm occurs when, as a judge, “you throw one’s position into the mix.” Justice Gary Stein noted that the ACJC opinion, written by its chairman, former Justice Alan Handler, said of Williams’ behavior: “The entire affair, including misinformation given to the police, was prompted primarily by subjective personal emotions and feelings arising out of an intense, intimate and volatile relationship.” In previous cases mentioned by various justices last week, no Superior Court judge has been removed for behavior outside the performance of judicial duties. Morris County Superior Court Judge Donald Collester Jr. was suspended for two months in 1992 for a second drunken-driving offense and, worse, for giving misleading statements to a police officer. Monahan, under questioning by Coleman, Chief Justice Deborah Poritz and Justice Peter Verniero, said that if Williams were suspended she would not be able to work at another job under rules barring outside employment by judges. “Yes, it’s a severe penalty,” Monahan said. For Williams, who has two children, even two months without pay “would seem like a heavy hit,” Walder said. Despite their concerns about being tougher on Williams than transgressing predecessors and about the effect of a suspension, several justices, particularly Poritz, mentioned the troubling evidence that the judge lied to the ACJC. The language of the ACJC presentment doesn’t make the justices’ job easier. The presentment says, without elaboration, “Respondent exhibited a lack of candor in her testimony.” Monahan has argued that the finding is not ambiguous. His brief says Williams deserves removal for lying to the ACJC on several points, including her motivation the night of the incident, what she said about the incident to a 911 operator, and what she said, and who she said it to, during the altercation. “They all add up to a failure to honor or obey her oath,” Monahan told the justices. He said the record about the incidents on April 14, 2000, supported a suspension, but that the lies to the ACJC warranted removal. Two dissenters on the ACJC agreed with him and voted for removal. One member called for a six-month suspension. Walder said, however, that while the ACJC included the terse sentence about a lack of candor in her testimony, nowhere in the opinion does the majority identify any specific instances of lack of candor. For that reason, Walder argued, it was a general statement and not a specific finding. He said that if so experienced a jurist as former Justice Handler had wanted to make such a finding he wouldn’t have done it in a short, unsupported sentence. And if the ACJC had made such a finding, it wouldn’t have recommended a reprimand, he added. Stein said, “They make the observation but they don’t explain it.” Long, perhaps suggesting there was a difference between lying and what the committee called “lack of candor,” said of the ACJC, “maybe they felt she was splitting hairs.” Either way, the supreme court has plenty of options. Without more fact-finding, it can affirm the reprimand or it can impose a suspension. It also can institute proceedings, which would require Williams to show cause before the court why she should not be removed. In the case of a reprimand or suspension, the findings must be made by clear and convincing evidence, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required for removal. Meanwhile, the court reserved decision, and Walder was making no predictions about the outcome or when it might be handed down. He noted that Somerset County Assignment Judge Robert Guterl has testified that Williams had been a good judge and will be a good one in the future. “We’ll just have to see what happens,” Walder said.

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