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Judge in rape case removed after asking accuser if she 'closed her legs'
Published Thursday, May 28, 2020 7:41AM EDT
In this Oct. 17, 2018 photo, Superior Court Judge John F. Russo appears for his hearing before the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct at Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, NJ. (Tanya Breen/The Asbury Park Press via AP)
A New Jersey Superior Court judge was removed from his position after several misconduct claims, including because he asked an alleged rape victim how she tried to stop an assault.
Judge John F. Russo Jr. was ordered removed from his position by the New Jersey Supreme Court, according to Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in a court opinion filed May 26. The removal is effective immediately and permanently bars Russo -- who served in Ocean County -- from holding a judicial office in New Jersey, according to the order.
The removal comes after a complaint was filed in August 2018 by the Supreme Court of New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the opinion said. The complaint alleges four counts of misconduct both in the courtroom and by asking personal favors from court staff.
In one of the misconduct claims, the complaint said Russo questioned a woman about how she tried to stop an alleged sexual assault, including if she "tried to "block [her] body parts" or "close her legs," after she fully described her assault allegations to the court.
"His conduct breached the public's trust," Rabner said in the opinion. "His pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior not only undermined the integrity of different court proceedings but also impaired his integrity and the Judiciary's. His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity and fitness to serve as a judge."
CNN has reached out to Russo's attorney for comment and has not heard back.
According to the order, Russo "claimed he was trying to help a 'demoralized' witness on cross-examination and 'get her re-engaged in the hearing.'"
In the court's opinion, Rabner responded to this claim saying that not only did the witness testify clearly, but that Russo's "coarse questions" were not relevant. Overall, Rabner said, Russo's comments after the hearing were "neither appropriate nor tasteful."
In response to another count in the opinion, Rabner said that Russo had a nine-minute phone exchange in front of a crowded courtroom with a woman who was a defendant of a paternity case. He called the woman, who missed her court date.
When the woman phoned back, the call was routed to the Russo's courtroom. The woman told Russo she didn't attend because she "was very scared," it said in the opinion. The judge then requested her address to send her a paternity order, but the woman didn't want to give her address because she was afraid for the safety of her children. Instead she asked for it to be sent to her lawyer, the complaint said.
In response, Russo allegedly said, "he's going to find you, ma'am. We're all going to find you."
In the opinion, Rabner described Russo's comments as "disturbing" and "reflected poorly on his temperament."
The other counts relate to Russo asking for preferential treatment for scheduling his son's custody case. He also declined to recuse himself from a high school classmate's spousal support case, the opinion said.
The court said that they considered mitigating factors when considering Russo's removal, including "an otherwise clean disciplinary record" and the respondent expressing remorse.
Russo became an attorney in 1997, where he served as a law clerk in the Superior Court before going into private practice, according to the opinion. He had six years of experience as an administrative law judge before he was appointed to the Superior Court in December 2015, it said. After he was appointed, he received formal training for working in the family division. He later received training related to the Prevention of the Domestic Violence Act, according to the opinion.
Rabner said that Russo's multiple acts of misconduct have "lasting consequences."