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scales of justice blind justice

A New Jersey judge under fire for allegedly acting belligerently after her daughters were expelled from their parochial school is disputing that she violated judicial ethics rules during an incident on school grounds.

Union County Superior Court Judge Theresa Mullen filed an answer to a complaint levied against her by the state Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct earlier this year.

Mullen, now assigned to the Family Part, has turned to Raymond Londa, of Londa & Londa in Elizabeth, to represent her in the ethics investigation.

Londa—in an answer dated July 6 and made public July 11, consisting of some 360 pages, including evidentiary exhibits—has asked that the ethics complaint be dismissed pending the appeal of a trespassing conviction against Mullen in connection with the case.

“Respondent has painstakingly detailed the history of this matter in order to place into proper context the petty disorderly persons offense of which she was found guilty which conviction is the subject of a pending motion for a new trial and which will be the subject of an appeal if the pending motion for a new trial is denied,” the answer said. “Respondent believes that there is a reasonable likelihood that her motion for a new trial will be granted in light of the factual recitation set forth hereinabove, and because of the pending motion and the certainty of an appeal in the event that her motion for a new trial is denied, Respondent respectfully requests … that this matter be dismissed at this time[.]”

The case has made headlines because of the issue of gender in school sports.

According to reports and the complaint, the issue dates back to 2016, when Mullen learned that one of her daughters, Sydney Phillips, a middle school student at St. Theresa’s School in Kenilworth, would not be allowed to play on the boys basketball team even though the girls team had been discontinued for lack of student participation.

Mullen’s husband, retired Kenilworth Police Department Capt. Scott Phillips, in December 2016 filed a civil complaint in Superior Court asking that the school be ordered to allow Sydney, then a seventh grader, to play for the boys team, the documents said.

Essex County Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler initially denied the application, but in February 2017 reversed himself after learning that girls were allowed to play on the boys team at St. John’s School in Clark.

According to the documents, Sydney eventually played on the boys team, and she and her sister, Kaitlyn, finished the 2016-17 year at St. Theresa’s—but it was confrontations in the interim that led to the filing of the ACJC complaint.

The complaint alleged that on Feb. 1, 2017, Margaret Dames, the secretary for education for the Archdiocese of Newark, wrote to Phillips and Mullen that they were required to withdraw their girls from the school because of the litigation, and that Mullen refused. The next day, Mullen arrived at the school with her children and were confronted publicly by school officials and Kenilworth police, who had been notified that news media would be present, the complaint said. Eventually, Kenilworth police removed Mullen from the school grounds, and school officials filed a trespassing complaint against her. Middlesex County Assignment Judge Alberto Rivas found Mullen guilty of defiant trespass. An appeal is pending.

In the answer, Mullen denied bringing news media to school grounds, saying that her husband had told media members about the dispute with the archdiocese during a practice with professional Women’s National Basketball Association players that Sydney was invited to participate in, and which was attended by reporters.

Mullen also denied being repeatedly told to leave the school grounds and refusing on Feb. 2, 2017.

She also contends that the archdiocese merely requested, but didn’t demand, that the girls cease attending school.

Mullen’s attorney on the non-ethics matters, Westfield solo Susan McCrea, was not available for comment Thursday but previously said there are “many inaccuracies” in the complaint.

The answer, in addition to disputing much of the complaint’s recitation of facts, alleges that Mullen’s daughters were subjected to harassment while in school. The harassment, according to the answer, included male students making sexually inappropriate gestures and comments, and the texting of a student with a gun. The answer further alleges that there was little or no corrective action taken by the school.

Mullen is charged with failing to meet the high expectations meant for members of the judiciary, impugning the judiciary, and demeaning her office by failing to comply with court rules and ethics guidelines.

Mullen, admitted to the bar in 1993, had been a solo in Cranford before her nomination to the bench in 2014. She focused on personal injury work, contracts and general litigation. Mullen practiced briefly at the Law Offices of Floyd F. Cottrell in Newark before starting her own firm. From 2003 to 2006, Mullen was with Tressler Soderstrom Maloney & Priess in Newark. She was with Sachs, Maitlin. Fleming, Greene, Marotte & Mullen in West Orange from 1997 to 2003, and from 1994 to 2007 was with the Law Offices of William Cambria, which served as the in-house counsel for the Archdiocese of Newark.

Michael Booth

Trenton Bureau Chief New Jersey Law Journal American Lawyer Media mbooth@alm.com Twitter: @mboothnjlj

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