The New Jersey Supreme Court has censured a trial judge for complaining to court staff about his child support obligations, conduct that could be construed as exerting his judicial influence on a personal matter, even if he didn’t intend it that way.
In an order signed Nov. 7, the court said Ocean County Superior Court Judge James Palmer Jr. had agreed to accept the recommendations and findings of the court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
A censure was the discipline recommended by the ACJC in a presentment in the case, dated Sept. 27 and released along with the court’s order on Nov. 7. The presentment was signed by the committee’s chairwoman, former Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long.
Palmer, the ACJC concluded, “made multiple references to his judicial office while interacting with various Somerset County Probation Department personnel on March 21, 2017, about his personal Family Part matter.
“Such conduct, irrespective of respondent’s professed lack of intent to do so, created the potential for respondent’s judicial office to influence the manner in which the Probation Department handled his concerns in respect of emancipation and child support,” the ACJC said. “Though there is no indication that any influence was actually exerted, the mere fact that such a potential exists constitutes a misuse of the judicial office in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
Palmer’s attorney, Mitchell Ansell, said the judge has “apologized and wants to move on with his life.
“Judge Palmer is a respected jurist with many years of service to the citizens of Ocean County,” said Ansell, of Ansell Grimm & Aaron in Ocean. “This did not involve any litigants. It was a misunderstanding.”
The original complaint filed in January by the ACJC said Palmer “created the risk that his judicial office would be an influential factor” in the handling of his family matter. In so doing, he “impugned the integrity of the judiciary.”
The complaint charged Palmer with violating three cannons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, including rules requiring judges to “observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved,” as well as to “promote public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” and to “avoid lending the prestige of their office to advance a personal interest.”
The complaint detailed an incident on March 21, 2017, when Palmer appeared at the Probate Division at the Somerset County Courthouse to discuss his child support obligations under a 2011 divorce and request to emancipate his daughter. According to the complaint, he used his judicial identification and introduced himself as “Judge Palmer” to a series of employees, who each passed him up to a supervisor when they were unable to find the emancipation consent he said his ex-wife had filed. The ACJC charged that each employee 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, and that he told them his daughter “should have been emancipated a long time ago.”
In his answer, Palmer acknowledged that, during his visit, he was wearing his judicial identification badge on a lanyard and that he identified him as a judge. He said he verbally “identified himself as ‘Judge Palmer’ only after [an office employee] noted it was her first day and that she was a new Probation Officer, in an attempt to put her at ease.” He admitted that the “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.” He denied that he knowingly violated ethics rules, and disputed some of the facts laid out in the complaint, including some of his alleged remarks about judicial salaries.
The ACJC’s Sept. 27 presentment said there were two aggravating factors that warranted censure for Palmer.
The first was for his “lack of integrity and probity” in the matter.
The second was for his two prior ethics infractions, for which he received private reprimands.
Palmer was privately reprimanded in October 2015 for being arrogant and aggressive toward two litigants in separate matters. The second occurred in January 2017, when he exhibited the same behavior toward two other litigants, the presentment said.
“Respondent’s continued inability to conform his conduct to the Codes of Judicial Conduct over the past several years, despite the recent receipt of prior discipline and his more than nine-year tenure on the bench, necessarily aggravates his abuse of the judicial office in this instance and must be met with enhanced discipline,” the presentment said.
Palmer was admitted in New Jersey in 1985. He has a law degree from Indiana University and master’s degrees from Columbia University in New York and Roosevelt University in Chicago. He spent 27 years in private practice, including as a solo in Jackson and as an in-house counsel to several corporations, before his December 2008 confirmation. Palmer was first assigned to the Family Part in Burlington County, then moved to the Criminal Part in 2010. In 2014, he was assigned to his current position in the Ocean Vicinage’s Civil Part. He was granted tenure in late 2015.