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New Jersey Superior Court Judge John F. Russo Jr., off the bench for nearly 20 months and accused of courtroom impropriety in his questioning of a sexual assault victim on the witness stand, is back on the job—though his disciplinary case, and his civil suit against the state judiciary, remain pending.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed a one-paragraph order assigning Russo to the Civil Division in Burlington County.

The order, dated Nov. 30 and released Tuesday, offered no explanation as to why Russo was reinstated.

A judiciary spokesman, Peter McAleer, said he could not comment further.

Russo’s attorney, Keyport solo David Corrigan, also said he did not know why Russo was ordered to return to work and reassigned from Ocean County.

“I would have to speculate to answer, and I’m not going to do that,” Corrigan said. “Judge Russo is thrilled to be back on the bench. Judge Russo was placed on administrative leave 20 months ago. We believe that was unwarranted, and we are pleased that the judiciary … has fully agreed with our position.”

Russo is still facing charges that he violated ethics rules while assigned to the Family Part in Ocean County—allegations that he has disputed.

Before the ethics case began, Russo sued the judiciary. He claimed in a suit filed in April of last year that, while sitting, he was harassed over the amount of time he spent caring for his disabled son. He had been on paid administrative leave since April 2017.

The civil suit was stayed over the summer pending the resolution of Russo’s ethics case.

This March, Russo was the subject of a complaint issued by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, in connection with four separate cases.

The first incident, which has garnered widespread media attention, occurred on May 16, 2016, while Russo was sitting in the Family Division in Ocean County. In that case, a woman was seeking a restraining order against a man who, she alleged, abandoned her along a roadway, threatened to burn her house down and sexually assaulted her. The complaint alleges that Russo, from the bench, put himself in the position of defense counsel by asking her if she tried to “run away,” “block[ed her] body parts,” “close[d] your legs,” or called for the police.

Russo also is accused of calling a Family Division manager in Ocean County for help in rescheduling a personal matter that was pending in Burlington County; failing to recuse from a family court matter involving a man with whom he attended high school; and calling a woman involved in a paternity case to warn her that she could be sanctioned if she did not heed a court order to comply with a paternity test.

In May, in an answer to the complaint, Russo denied violating ethics rules and questioned the accuracy of some of the ACJC’s facts. “Respondent has a good reputation and character,” the answer said. “During his time on the bench in Superior Court, respondent worked hard, was caring and compassionate about litigants … and handled cases efficiently.”

More recently, in October, Russo testified before the ACJC. In the hearing, he explained that by questioning the alleged sex assault victim, he was attempting to bolster the factual record in the case, but ultimately denied the restraining order sought, according to reports from the Asbury Park Press.

In the civil suit, pending in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Russo is claiming he was placed on leave for clashing with supervising judges over time he spent attending to the needs of his disabled son. The suit named the state judiciary, Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford and Presiding Family Division Judge Madelin Einbinder.

Russo, who was confirmed in December 2015, said in his complaint that he was removed from duty in April 2017 and told to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation before hearing any more cases. According to the suit, Ford told Russo that his law clerk had complained about him and that the circumstances could support a hostile work environment.

Russo is the son of former state Senate President John Russo, who represented the 10th District in Ocean County as a Democrat from 1982 to 1991.

Michael Booth

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

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