A court ethics panel on Wednesday heard charges that a judge used his office to wield influence and veered into the practice of law by advising his girlfriend about a litigation matter.
The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct also heard Superior Court Judge Joseph Isabella's defense: that he was only providing emotional and moral support for the woman he would later marry.
ACJC counsel are seeking a reprimand for Isabella, the minimum public discipline.
The litigation matter, in 2008, was a dispute between Toni Manzo and Andrew Leyble, the father of her two children. They jointly owned a Nutley home, and Manzo claimed Leyble had coerced her into transferring to him her interest in exchange for allowing her to live there until the children turned 21.
Isabella, who lived with Manzo part of the time, referred her to a lawyer he knew, Keith McKenna. After a suit was filed, Leyble's lawyer sent interrogatories, which McKenna sent to Manzo for response.
According to Manzo's and Isabella's testimony, they looked over the interrogatories one night at the dinner table. Manzo gave her answers aloud and Isabella wrote them down, partially summarizing them and making notes for questions to ask McKenna on anything that was unclear.
"He was just writing down my answers … just to take away some of my anxiety for me," Manzo testified.
When a mediator asked Manzo to document her child-care expenses, she again consulted Isabella, who hand-wrote an expense sheet, she said.
Isabella said Manzo transcribed each document and submitted her own versions, and he never reviewed the final interrogatory answers nor participated in any meetings or telephone conferences with McKenna.
The other charge concerns Isabella's admitted intervention in Manzo's efforts in 2008 to get the Nutley school district to pay a portion of the $8,000 cost for sending her autistic son to a special-needs summer camp in Pennsylvania.
After the district's director of special services, Paul Palozzola, denied the request, Isabella called Frank Pomaco — his former law partner, close friend and counsel to the Nutley Board of Education — for advice on how to appeal. Isabella followed up with a fax on his judiciary letterhead, further explaining the situation.
Pomaco directed Isabella to contact the district superintendent, Joseph Zarra, who knew Isabella from his days as Nutley township attorney. Zarra in turn contacted Palozzola, and the district ultimately approved payment for the camp.
Leyble filed the grievance that brought both matters to the attention of the ACJC, based on documents he had found in the Nutley home, where he visited his children regularly. Isabella, when questioned by an investigator, did not deny his conduct.
The ACJC's formal complaint, lodged in May 2012, charged in connection with the Nutley matter that Isabella violated Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 1, which requires judges to observe high standards of conduct to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary; Canon 2A, which requires judges to avoid appearances of impropriety and to promote public confidence in the judiciary's integrity and impartiality; and Canon 2B, which prohibits lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests of others.
In connection with Manzo's court documents, Isabella is charged with violating Canons 1 and 2A, as well as Rule 1:15-1(a), which prohibits full-time judges from practicing law.
In his answer, Isabella said he was merely Manzo's scrivener and copy editor, and did not tell her what to say.
Isabella stipulated that use of his judicial letterhead was improper but continued to deny that he was providing Manzo with legal counsel.
"No, I was just trying to calm her down and explain how the system works," he told the panel Wednesday.
In being a judge, "I'm not going to stop being a son, I'm not going to stop being a father, I'm not going to stop being a husband," he added.
Isabella and Manzo married in October 2011.
But Disciplinary Counsel Tracie Gelbstein told the panel that Isabella "is held to a higher standard of conduct. You can't help your family in these types of matters."
Gelbstein said Isabella, as an experienced litigator and a judge of the Family Part — where he sat from 2007 to 2009 — knew what kinds of interrogatory answers would benefit Manzo. "He used that experience and expertise," she said. "That is the practice of law."
Isabella's lawyer, Ralph Lamparello of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello in Secaucus, said: "I don't think when a judge puts his hand on a Bible and swears an oath that you somehow lose your humanity. … We're talking about a Superior Court judge who helped out someone he loved."
At least one ACJC member, former Chief Justice James Zazzali, appeared sympathetic, saying he was "mystified" by the idea that judges can't give practical advice, for example, to a spouse in the event of a car accident, or to a son in the event of a drunken-driving arrest.
Gelbstein said they were "dealing with appearances" of impropriety.
In July 2007, the Supreme Court censured Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto under the same canons for his dealings with school officials, police, prosecutors and court personnel in inquiring about alleged bullying of his son by a high school football teammate.
Rivera-Soto was also found to have breached R. 2:15-8(a)(6), which forbids conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
Wednesday's 90-minute hearing apparently didn't answer all the questions. The chairman, former Justice Alan Handler, requested briefs within 30 days.