A New Jersey judge who asked a rape victim if she “knew how to stop somebody from having intercourse with" her and if she could have closed her legs is remorseful for his comments and ready to take a punishment the higher court sees fit, his attorney said.
Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr. appeared before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon for a disciplinary hearing regarding his comments to the rape victim and three other counts of judicial misconduct. Russo did not speak during the 20-minutes of oral arguments; he sat with his hands crossed, twiddling his thumbs.
“He did not intend to imply that a victim of sexual assault should close her legs to avoid” rape, his attorney, Amelia Carolla, told the seven-member Supreme Court. “He now understands that his intentions do not matter. He understands that what matters only is the impact his words had on others. He is remorseful about the hurt that this may have caused the plaintiff.”
An advisory panel for the court in April recommended the Ocean County family court judge receive three months suspension, and wrote that his conduct demonstrated "an emotional immaturity wholly unbefitting the judicial office and incompatible with the decorum expected of every jurist,” in its 45-page recommendation detailing four incidents of misconduct.
The panel, which consists of nine members, did not come to a consensus on the length of Russo’s suspension. Five had issued the three-month recommendation, while the other four thought six months would be more fitting for the “severity of this misconduct.”
Russo was placed on paid administrative leave in May 2017 before returning to work in Burlington County earlier this year at a salary of $165,000. He has presided over civil matters, Carolla said.
A transcript of the May 2016 hearing shows Russo asked the woman, “Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?”
She explained she could defend herself physically, but Russo pressed her other ways.
“Block your body parts?” Russo said. “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
In off-the-record comments following the testimony, the nonchalant attitude toward sexual assault continued. “As an exotic dancer, one would think you would know how to fend off unwanted sexual…” was picked up on a recording. Laughter was heard in the conversation as well, which Russo maintained he was using as a teaching moment to educate a clerk when he said, “it’s not all fun and games out there.”
Carolla said Russo was embarrassed upon hearing the recording, and understands the laughter, tone and content of the conversation were not appropriate.
“Did he not understand the seriousness of it at the time?” Justice Jaynee LaVeccha asked. “He paused to ask if recording was off.”
“It sounds like the judge and the people around him were just yucking it up after the proceedings," Justice Barry Albin said. “Am I wrong about that?”
The tone-deaf comments on the assault aren’t Russo’s only issue: The panel also found the judge tried to use his position to rearrange the schedule of a personal family court matter in Burlington County regarding a dispute over Russo’s adult son, who has Down Syndrome and bipolar disorder and remains in his care.
Russo also failed to recuse himself from a case involving alimony payments for a couple he knew from high school. He was able to reduced a payment owed for spousal support from $10,000 to $300 in that case.
The fourth misconduct count against Russo alleges he called a mother to see if she complied with a paternity test without the father present on the call.
Separately, a former law clerk is also suing him for sexual harassment and discrimination.
“Could a reasonable victim of sexual assault come away with confidence in the integrity of the process if Judge Russo presided over that matter in the future?” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked.
“I believe so,” Carolla answered. “He is remorseful and has learned from that mistake.”
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