(Photo: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com)

A New Jersey municipal court judge who is facing disciplinary charges for a remark he made to a criminal defendant claims in his answer to the charges that the incident was not egregious enough to warrant formal discipline.

Franklin Township Municipal Court Judge Hector Rodriguez was named in a Dec. 12, 2018, complaint by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct over a quip he made to a female defendant during her arraignment on multiple indictable offenses.

Rodriguez said in his answer, dated Dec. 28 and made public Monday, that “any misconduct that may be found is minor and does not meet the clear and convincing standard required for a formal discipline of respondent.” He added that “the complaint failed to state an ethical violation under the New Jersey Code of Judicial Conduct that rises to a level of proof beyond clear and convincing evidence.”

In the incident at issue, occurring on Dec. 5, 2017, the litigant was about to be released on her own recognizance, but she appeared to be confused and asked the judge, ”[D]o I owe you anything?” according to the ACJC complaint. “Not that you can do in front of all these people, no,” Rodriguez is quoted as saying by the ACJC.

The defendant did not complain about the comment, as Rodriguez points out in his answer, but the public defender and municipal prosecutor on the case discussed the exchange, concluded it was improper,and reported it to Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone, the assignment judge for the Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren vicinage, and Judge William Kelleher, the presiding judge for the vicinage’s municipal courts.

The ACJC charged Rodriguez with violating three canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct:

  • Canon 1, Rule 1.1, which requires judges to observe high standards of conduct so that integrity and independence of the judiciary can be preserved;
  • Canon 2, Rule 2.1, which requires judges to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; and
  • Canon 3, Rule 3.5, which requires judges to be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.

Rodriguez said in his answer that his conduct did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct, adding that he “has a good reputation and character” and has a reputation as a judge who is “professional, comforting and well-liked by all attorneys and litigants who come into his court.”

In an interview with the ACJC, according to the complaint, Rodriguez said he responded the way he did because it appeared the woman wanted to give him cash, which as a judge he couldn’t accept. He denied there was any sexual innuendo connected to the remark.

“You can’t take it out of context,” he is quoted as telling the ACJC. “You take a statement and flip it around, throw it in the air, put spice on it and put it back into that—it’s going to be the same when you—in the context of what I said.”

Rodriguez serves as chief judge of the Municipal Court in the Township of Franklin, a position to which he was first appointed in January 2014. Beginning in January 2017, he was designated a municipal judge authorized to handle Centralized Judicial Processing for Somerset, a position he held until Dec. 11, 2017.

Fania Veksler of GV Law in New Brunswick, who represents Rodriguez in the case, did not return a reporter’s call seeking comment.

ACJC Disciplinary Counsel Maureen Bauman could not be reached for comment on Rodriguez’s answer.