When it comes to New Jersey’s stringent ethical strictures governing members of the bench and bar, sometimes it’s not what one does—but what one says—that leads to headaches. The case of Judge John Russo is an extreme example right now, but in a number of other recent cases, lawyers and judges have become the subjects of ethics investigations based on their words. Sometimes words can be interpreted in different ways, but does it matter what one meant to say?
In February, Ocean County Superior Court Judge James Palmer Jr., accused of trying to use his influence to reduce his personal child support payment obligations, filed a response to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct denying that he violated ethics rules when he appeared at the Probate Division at the Somerset County Courthouse to discuss his child support obligations and an emancipation issue. The ACJC charged that employees said Palmer complained about having a cost-of-living increase in his child support payments when he had not been given a raise in his judicial salary. “Respondent, upon reflection, acknowledges at this time that his conduct in identifying himself as a judge to judiciary employees in the Probation Division had the potential to be perceived as an attempt at deferential treatment, however, this was not the intent of the Respondent,” Palmer said in his answer.
Also in late February, the District XA Ethics Committee said Morristown matrimonial litigator Willliam Laufer of Laufer, Dalena, Cadicina, Jensen & Bradley violated Rules of Professional Conduct when he made the remarks about Morris County Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, his former partner, to a courtroom adversary during a break in a domestic violence hearing. Laufer was accused of saying Knapp was “in my pocket.” In his defense, Laufer told the committee, “It was bad humor. But it was humor.”
Earlier in February, Wilfredo Benitez, a municipal court judge in East Orange and Belleville charged with using the power of his office in an attempt to talk his way out of a drunken driving arrest, denied he violated the state’s judicial disciplinary rules. He was later acquitted of drunken driving, but what he allegedly said during the arrest led to ethics trouble. He is accused of telling his arresting officers, “I mean what are you trying to do? I’m a judge. You’re wasting your time. You know you are. You’re not going to give me courtesy?” In answering his ethics charges, Benitez said: “At no time did Respondent attempt to or intend to use his position as a Municipal Court Judge to advance his personal or private interests. Any misconduct that may be found is only of a minor nature.”
Reaching a little further back, late last year the ACJC recommended that Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi be removed from the bench for improperly intervening in a child custody matter, and then being dishonest with investigators after a complaint was filed against her. For the ACJC, it was the latter that apparently persuaded it to recommend removal from office. Had her misconduct been confined merely to the one-time incident regarding the custody matter, committee chair and retired Justice Virginia Long said, “significant public discipline, short of removal,” would ordinarily be warranted. “Respondent’s demonstrable and pervasive dishonesty during these ethics proceedings, which include a manufactured defense, signifies a complete departure from the honor and integrity demanded of every jurist and essential to the continued viability of the judicial office,” Long said.