A Somerset County judge was bounced from a matrimonial case Thursday because of her former affiliation with a firm involved in the matter.
Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit's tenure with Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis, particularly a three-month period during which the case was pending, is grounds for disqualification, the Appellate Division said in Carr v. Carr, A-6393-11.
"Even the brief 2007 overlap, when the judge was preparing to enter public service, was enough to trigger a disqualifying interest under Canon 3(C)(1)(b) and Rule 1:12-1(g)," the panel said.
"The failure … to recuse was a mistaken exercise of discretion," it added.
The case dates to 2006, when Deborah Carr sought a divorce from her husband of about 18 years, Harry Carr.
Harry lodged third-party claims, over equitable distribution of marital assets, against Deborah's relatives, who were living in homes jointly owned by the couple.
In April 2007, Deborah's relatives retained Greenbaum Rowe attorney Mark Sobel. When they ran short on money, Deborah provided them some, which they used to pay the Woodbridge firm's fees.
Neither Sobel nor anyone else from the firm ever represented Deborah.
In April 2010, after 38 trial days spanning six months before Superior Court Judge Ann Bartlett, Harry settled all issues with the third-party defendants, though the trial in the couple's dissolution dragged on.
Sobel was not involved in the case after the settlement.
Bartlett eventually entered a final judgment in the case, in June 2011, but by then had been transferred to the Criminal Part.
With postjudgment enforcement issues ongoing, the case was assigned to Goodzeit, presiding Family Part judge for the Somerset-Hunterdon-Warren vicinage.
During that time, Harry discovered Goodzeit's history with Greenbaum Rowe: Before her appointment to the bench in July 2007, she had been with the firm since 1985, handling family law matters exclusively. She was a partner with Sobel, who heads the family law practice group and is co-managing partner.
Harry, who was pro se, wrote a letter to Goodzeit, notifying her that Greenbaum Rowe had been involved in the third-party dispute and suggesting that recusal was necessary.
After Goodzeit responded that she perceived no conflict and had no prior knowledge of the case, Harry filed a formal motion for disqualification.
Goodzeit denied it, deeming the third-party action and the dissolution separate matters and finding no reasonable basis for disqualification.
Goodzeit also suggested that Harry's dissatisfaction with her rulings motivated the motion, noting that "seeking … recusal is an improper means of addressing his claims."
Harry appealed, urging the court to apply judicial canon 3(C)(1)(b), which requires a judge to recuse where impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including when the judge previously practiced with a lawyer "concerning the matter."
On Thursday, Appellate Division Judges Joseph Yannotti and Jonathan Harris obliged, ordering the case reassigned to a different judge.
"The proverbial man or woman on the street would have little difficulty in thinking that the motion judge might favor the interests of Mrs. Carr," the court said in a per curiam decision.
"Of course, we make no such direct finding. … However it is the public perception that counts," they continued.
In addition to the canon, the court relied on Rule 1:12-1(g), which calls for disqualification "when there is any other reason which might reasonably preclude a fair and unbiased hearing and judgment, or which might reasonably lead counsel or the parties to believe so."
Goodzeit, in her law practice's final months, "was employed side-by-side with the lawyer who represented Mrs. Carr's sisters, brothers-in-law, and parents in the very same litigation that she was being called upon in 2012" to resolve postjudgment disputes, the court noted, terming the third-party action and the divorce "clearly the same matter."
The court also emphasized Deborah's underwriting of the legal fees that ultimately were paid to Greenbaum Rowe.
Goodzeit relied on case law that was distinguishable, the panel said. In one case, Sheeran v. Progressive Life Ins. Co., 182 N.J. Super. 237 (App. Div. 1981), the judge, formerly a hearing officer for an administrative agency, had her disqualification reversed in an action lodged by the agency.
In another, State v. Hill, 110 N.J. Super. 370 (App. Div. 1970), the trial judge, a former assistant prosecutor, was not disqualified from hearing a case, though it was pending before he left the office.
Goodzeit's situation is different from the former, where the lawyer resolved cases as a hearing officer, and a prosecutor's office, where lawyers aren't automatically "associated" with one another, the court said.
Goodzeit was "an advocate shepherding the interests of the law firm's clients," and, though she wasn't personally involved in the case, "a perception of allegiance to their cause is wholly reasonable," the court said.
The panel did not address substantive issues in the case but vacated orders already entered by Goodzeit.
Harry, who tried the case and handled the appeal pro se, is an attorney but hasn't practiced since 1992, when he was an in-house lawyer with AT&T in New Jersey.
He says it's "unfortunate that I even had to file the appeal. … To me, this was a black-and-white case. She wasn't allowed to preside in this case and she didn't have any discretion to decide otherwise."
"It's surprising to me, honestly, that any judge would put themselves in this situation," he adds. "It was completely avoidable."
Deborah's counsel, James Yudes, says he likely won't seek review of the ruling, but calls it "wrongheaded" and ignorant of the differences between the canon and the court rules.
Goodzeit "wasn't keeping this case because she wanted it … she was keeping this case to defend the integrity of the judiciary" and not be "intimidated" by a litigant, he adds.
Goodzeit was out of chambers Thursday and could not be reached. •