TRENTON, N.J. (CN) — A New Jersey judge who asked a woman in a sexual assault case if she tried closing her legs to her attacker was removed from the bench Tuesday for serious misconduct.
“No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law,” seven justices of the state Supreme Court held unanimously, ordering the removal of Superior Court Judge John F. Russo Jr.
Russo made the comments in 2016 while presiding over a hearing where a woman sought a restraining order against the father of her child.
As the woman was being cross-examined about her testimony of having been forced into sex with the man, Russo took over the questioning and grilled the woman about whether she knew “how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you.”
As the woman provided some answers — saying one could run away, hurt the attacker or tell him to stop — Russo chimed in.
“Block your body parts,” Russo said, according to a transcript included in the opinion. “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
Russo ultimately denied the request for a restraining order.
That Russo’s comments were out of line is not in question, said Shana Maier, a criminal justice professor at Widener University.
“Asking an alleged victim if she tried to stop the rape or ‘close her legs’ is victim-blaming and extremely inappropriate,” Maier said in an email. “The responsibility to end an assault by fighting back or blocking body parts should never be on the victim. The alleged victim responded that she told the assailant to stop. No other questions about her response during the time of the alleged sexual assault should have been asked.”
The court began removal proceedings against Russo after the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct recommended in March 2019 that he be suspended for three months from the Ocean County Superior Court. A three-judge panel backed Russo’s removal in January.
Writing for the full court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said Tuesday that Russo’s questioning had the effect, intolerably, of shaming the alleged victim.
“Judges set the tone for a courtroom,” Rabner wrote. “Especially when it comes to sensitive matters like domestic violence and sexual assault, that tone must be dignified, solemn, and respectful, not demeaning or sophomoric. Respondent failed in that regard.”
The 26-page opinion also notes that a courthouse surveillance system recorded Russo joking after the hearing with other employees that he is able to “talk about sex acts with a straight face”.
“At appropriate times, and in a tasteful way, judges sometimes inject humor to lighten a proceeding,” Rabner wrote. “Respondent’s comments, though, were neither appropriate nor tasteful.”
Addressing other instances of misconduct, the court noted that Russo also attempted to use his connections to the manager of the Family Division in Ocean County to reschedule a custody hearing between him and his ex-wife to better accommodate his schedule.
On another occasion, Russo lowered the amount of child support a father —someone Russo had known from high school — had to pay to stay out of jail, from $10,000 to $300.
The last charge against Russo relates to threatening comments he made to a woman over the phone when she failed to show up for a paternity hearing.
“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,” Rabner wrote of Russo. “His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity and fitness to serve as a judge. And his conduct breached the public’s trust.”
Russo is also facing a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by a former clerk last year, citing his temper and comments he made to her about her looks.
Russo’s removal is effective immediately and bars him from ever holding judicial office in New Jersey again.
A lawyer for Russo did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.