The Supreme Court on Thursday censured a former municipal court judge and banished him from the bench for five years for his handling of a speeding-ticket case despite a conflict of interest.
Instead of recusing when the potential conflict became apparent, Robert A. Solomon, who sat in Norwood, tried to get the ticket downgraded and, when that failed, denied the prosecutor’s request to adjourn and tried the case to acquittal.
The justices agreed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct’s finding that Solomon’s conduct “represents a complete departure from the proper administration of justice and severely damages the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
However, they stopped short of imposing permanent disqualification from office as the ACJC had urged.
Sheila Esposito, who had taught Solomon’s daughter at a Norwood elementary school, appeared in Solomon’s court on Feb. 10, 2009.
Before the start of the session, Solomon entered the office of prosecutor Laura Nunnink and tried to get her to offer Esposito a plea bargain. Nunnink replied she would have to run the idea by the officer who wrote the ticket.
Solomon left Nunnink’s office and spoke with Norwood Mayor James Barsa. He was chatting with Esposito, whom Barsa knew though his own children. After speaking with the officer, Nunnink offered to reduce the charge to unsafe driving, which carries a higher fine but no points.
Esposito rejected the deal and, after mentioning she knew Solomon and Barsa, said “someone” should have spoken to Nunnink about her case.
Solomon returned to Nunnink’s office where Nunnink, seated with the ticketing officer, told him, “You know, this isn’t right.” She testified at the ACJC hearing last December that she felt pressured by Solomon to do a plea bargain.
When Nunnink advised Solomon the case could not be resolved with a plea, Solomon spoke directly with the officer, who later testified he was willing to give Esposito a no-point ticket but would not agree to a no-point, low-fine obstruction-of-traffic charge.
Solomon informed Nunnink he would try the case that evening and refused her request for an adjournment so she could obtain the radar-gun certifications she needed to admit Esposito’s speed reading.
Nunnink tried the case without them while Barsa watched from the gallery.
The officer testified that Esposito was traveling 38 mph in a 25 mph zone, while Esposito said she was “pretty sure” she was going about 25. After finding both of them credible, Solomon found Esposito not guilty, at which point Barsa, who had been sitting beside Esposito, left the courtroom.
During the ACJC hearing, Solomon acknowledged that he had a close friendship and business and political ties with the mayor and that it was unusual for Barsa to attend court sessions, as he did the night of Esposito’s trial.
Esposito admitted she asked Barsa to intercede to get her a reduced charge.
Solomon did not deny he entered Nunnink’s office but denied making an ex parte attempt to get a plea bargain for Esposito.
Instead, he portrayed the visits as part of his normal routine of assessing what cases would need trials.
He explained that he acquitted Esposito because of the missing certification and claimed he did not say so on the record because it would have made Nunnink and the officer look bad for not having the evidence they needed.
He claimed that he routinely did the same thing in other cases for the same reason.
The ACJC faulted Solomon for casting aspersions on Nunnink’s professional competence by blaming her for Esposito’s acquittal, accusing her of trying to “trick” him into convicting Esposito despite the missing certification and trying to justify his failure to recuse on the ground that Nunnink did not ask.
It referred to an anonymous letter sent to Bergen Assignment Judge Peter Doyne that called Solomon’s actions regarding Esposito “a slap in the face” as showing that Solomon had undermined public confidence in the judiciary.
Solomon, in his answer to the ethics complaint, he denied that he had a conflict that required recusal. He later conceded, however, that his failure to step off the case violated judicial canons that require high standards of conduct to preserve judicial integrity and promote public confidence and that call for disqualification where a judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. He further admitted violating court rules that require recusal where a judge has or appears to have a conflict of interest.
Solomon, a personal injury lawyer in Newark, did not return a call for comment on the court’s ruling.
Right after the ethics complaint was filed, in October 2010, he took a voluntary leave of absence from the Norwood bench at the request of Roy McGeady, the presiding municipal judge for Bergen County. When his contract with Norwood ended at the end of last year, he was replaced by Robert Travers.
Solomon’s punishment contrasts with the discipline meted out in 2008 to Sybil Elias, now chief judge in Orange but formerly a local judge for East Orange and Irvington, who was censured but not disqualified from judging.
Elias fixed an East Orange ticket in 2006 for a friend and mentor, Patrice Davis, her one-time supervisor at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.