Threats to Judge Aren’t Mere Court Shopping

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The risk of condoning court-shopping did not overcome the need for judges to recuse themselves when a man charged with firebombing synagogues threatened them, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled today.
     Bergen County officials uncovered evidence of the threats in a June 27, 2012, search of Aakash Dalal’s jail cell while the Rutgers University student was awaiting trial on the firebombing of four synagogues and Jewish community centers.
     Dalal, who also allegedly tried to burn down a rabbi’s living quarters while the rabbi and his family slept, had allegedly compiled a list of enemies with the names of the judge and assistant prosecutor presiding over his trial.
     A second enemies list, which mentioned the same judge and prosecutor also named the jurist who set Dalal’s bail at $2.5 million, plus the words “dead cops, dead cops.”
     In 2013, a Bergen County grand jury returned an indictment that mirrored the second complaint prosecutors filed in the wake of this discovery.
     Neither filing charged Dalal with threats against judges, alleging only conspiracy to murder the assistant prosecutor, conspiracy to possess a firearm and terroristic threats.
     Dalal nevertheless claimed that the presiding judge should recuse himself based on “the appearance of impartiality.”
     Bergen County Superior Court Judge Edward Jerejian advanced the case, however, calling Dalal’s motion “the crudest form of judge shopping.”
     Since an appellate panel found that the oversight by a Bergen judge would impair the appearance of fairness, Dalal’s case was eventually transferred to Passaic County.
     Though the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the state Wednesday that a defendant can use threats to manipulate the justice system, it said that the facts at hand could lead to the questioning of the Bergen judiciary’s impartiality.
     “We recognize that all judges in a vicinage meet together periodically and socialize as a group on occasion,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court. “All of those relationships can raise legitimate questions about the appearance of impartiality when a colleague presides over a case involving a serious threat against a fellow judge who serves in the same vicinage.”
     Venue shopping also does not appear to have motivated Dalal here since he had not communicated the threat directly to the judges, nor had he intended for anybody to find the list in his cell.
     Rabner was clear not to paint with too broad a brush, however.
     “Not all threats against a judge will require that judge’s recusal,” Rabner wrote, noting that outbursts in the middle of trial while evidence is being presented, for example, would not necessitate recusal.
     Neither of the judges from Dalal’s lists still sit on the bench in Bergen County.
     The presiding judge, Liliana DeAvila-Silebi, now works for the Passaic County court, while the judge who set bail, Patrick Roma, retired in 2014.
     As such, the court should reassign Dalal’s case back to Bergen County on remand, the justices found.
     Dalal’s father was quoted in 2014 as saying his son’s civil rights had been violated by the length of his solitary confinement. Dalal has been in jail for the past three years.
     Dalal’s defense attorney, Brian Neary, could not be reached for comment. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office did not return calls for comment.

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