The New Jersey Supreme Court panel handling judicial ethics matters is recommending that a Passaic County Superior Court judge be removed from the bench for improperly intervening in a child custody matter, and then being dishonest with investigators after a complaint was filed against her.
The court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, in a presentment dated Oct. 24 but released Thursday, unanimously recommended that Judge Liliana DeAvila-Silebi be removed from the bench.
DeAvila-Silebi has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the matter.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, in an order signed Thursday, said three judges—Appellate Division Presiding Judge Carmen Messano, Camden County Assignment Judge Deborah Katz and Monmouth County Assignment Judge Lisa Thornton—will conduct further fact-finding proceedings and make a recommendation to the court.
The court will likely then hold a hearing on its own before ultimately deciding if removal is warranted.
Neither DeAvila-Silebi nor her attorney, Raymond Reddin of Totowa’s Reddin Masri, could immediately be reached for comment.
Retired Justice Virginia Long, the ACJC chairwoman, said in the presentment that the evidence showed “clearly and convincingly” that DeAvila-Silebi misused the powers of her office, and then was “dishonest in all material respects” when testifying before the ACJC at her April hearing.
For the ACJC, it was apparently DeAvila-Silebi’s dishonest conduct that persuaded it to recommend removal from office.
Had her misconduct been confined merely to the one-time incident regarding the custody matter, Long said, “significant pubic discipline, short of removal,” would ordinarily be warranted.
“Respondent’s demonstrable and pervasive dishonesty during these ethics proceedings, which include a manufactured defense, signifies a complete departure from the honor and integrity demanded of every jurist and essential to the continued viability of the judicial office,” Long said.
“For this reason, the committee respectfully recommends that proceedings be instituted to remove Respondent from judicial office,” Long said.
DeAvila-Silebi is charged with violating the judicial code of conduct by allegedly 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 ACJC 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, according to documents. “As a judge you have to have compassion.”
It turned out that the call, according to the ACJC, was from the cellphone of a woman named Vivianne Chermont, one of the judge’s former unpaid interns, and involved a parenting time dispute with her ex-husband, Franklin Ferrer, though DeAvila-Silebi has claimed she didn’t know the identity of the caller.
Reddin said in an answer to the original complaint that DeAvila-Silebi 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.
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.
The ACJC said that as a “direct result” of DeAvila-Silebi’s intervention, the child, who had been temporarily left in the custody of Ferrer’s mother, was taken from the grandmother and turned over to Chermont.
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 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 ACJC noted that DeAvila-Sibeli never attempted to identify the caller, nor determine his status, if any, as a member of the bar.
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.
Until the suspension, DeAvila-Silebi was 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.
“In respect of any mitigating factors for this, the record is largely silent,” Long said in the presentment. “While we commend Respondent’s dedicated service as a Superior Court judge for the past nine years, five as the Bergen County Presiding Criminal Division judge, this length of service, standing alone, is insufficient to mitigate her misconduct in this instance.”