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A New Jersey judge facing disciplinary action for allegedly intervening in a child custody matter defended herself at a judicial conduct hearing on Wednesday, saying she acted properly given the facts she had at the time.
Passaic County Superior Court Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi is charged with violating the judicial code of conduct by calling the police on a weekend and having a child transferred from one parent to another.
At the time, DeAvila-Silebi was in the middle of transferring from Bergen County to Passaic County, and was an emergent judge on call that weekend. DeAvila-Silebi told the state Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct that she received a call on her cellphone from someone purporting to be an attorney, who read a Family Part order describing a child custody agreement and alleging that the father had violated the order by keeping the child out of school for a week and not returning him to his mother.
“You can’t help but be human,” the judge told the ACJC. “As a judge you still have compassion.”
The ACJC will decide if DeAvila-Silebi violated ethics rules and, if so, whether to ask the Supreme Court to impose discipline.
The ACJC filed the complaint against DeAvila-Silebi on Oct. 20. She denied the allegations in an answer filed by her attorney on Nov. 9.
DeAvila-Silebi’s attorney, Raymond Reddin, said in the answer that she acted as best she could under the circumstances. “Given the volume, the unexpectedness, and the ex parte nature of these emergent phone calls, it would be very unreasonable and unrealistic to expect an emergent judge, without the benefit of a court staff or even a file, to field an emergent call on a weekend and completely vet the entire situation prior to making a decision,” he said.
The incident at issue occurred on May 9, 2015, according to the ACJC complaint.
It turned out that the phone call, purportedly from an attorney, came from an unidentified male using a phone later found to belong to the mother of the child involved in the custody dispute, the complaint said.
The caller told the judge that the child was in Fort Lee with the father and was supposed to have been transferred to the mother for the weekend. DeAvila-Silebi said she then called the Fort Lee Police Department and, after explaining she was assigned to both Bergen and Passaic counties and was on emergent duty, arranged for the police to pick up the child, the complaint said.
ACJC Counsel Maureen Bauman said in the complaint that DeAvila-Silebi erred by failing to confirm the venue of the custody dispute. The complaint further said she did not review the custody order, involved herself in a matter outside her jurisdiction, and also did not confirm the relationship between the caller and the child.
Reddin, of Reddin Masri in Totowa, asked DeAvila-Silebi during the hearing whether anything about the call “raised your antenna.”
DeAvila-Silebi said no. “He [the caller] represented himself to be an attorney,” she said. “I took the phone call and I dealt with it. There was the potential for violence.
“I was trying to protect the child,” she said.
The complaint alleges that DeAvila-Silebi engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and did not conform to the high standards of conduct expected of judges.
It further alleges that she impugned the integrity of the judiciary, failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety and lent the prestige of her office to the benefit of another.
It is unclear how the caller obtained DeAvila-Silebi’s cellphone number, although Reddin said in the answer that the number was widely available to law enforcement officers, judicial officials and lawyers because she frequently was on emergent duty on weekends.
DeAvila-Silebi currently is assigned to the Civil Part in Passaic.
Reddin said the complaint failed to capture the essence of the situation, and did not take into account that she was in the middle of a transfer and was handling a matter that could concern a child’s safety and well-being outside of regular court hours.
“[S]he was presented with an emergent application involving a custody dispute and the potential safety of the child,” he said in the answer.
DeAvila-Silebi was first nominated to the bench in 2008, and granted tenure in 2015. In the Law Journal‘s 2015 Judicial Survey, DeAvila ranked 17th out of the 19 judges surveyed in Passaic with an overall score of 7.01 out of a possible score of 10. Her highest score, 8.27, was for being unbiased with regard to race, gender or party identification. Her lowest score, 6.38, was for her ability to handle complex cases.