TRENTON – An attorney representing a local judge said he was remorseful and would accept any discipline handed down for inappropriate comments he made.
Superior Court Judge John F. Russo, former mayor of Toms River, is facing suspension without pay for several issues of misconduct, including asking a rape victim if she tried to keep her legs closed.
Amelia Carolla, the attorney representing him before the New Jersey Supreme Court on July 9, said that it was not his intention to imply that the rape was the victim’s fault. However, he has learned that his intentions do not matter, and that it is the effects of his words on those who hear them that are important.
A recording had caught him later say to his staff “What I lack in handwriting skills, I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”
Russo had claimed that his comments were to educate his law clerk on how to handle complex domestic violence cases.
At the Supreme Court, his attorney was questioned about what part of his comments were supposed to be educational.
One justice asked “From the dialogue, it sounds like the judge and everyone was yucking it up. Am I wrong?”
The judges asked whether it was appropriate that Russo seemed to indicate that since the victim was an exotic dancer she should have experience in fending off unwanted sexual advances.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner had a line of questioning about whether these comments would shade future cases. He asked if future domestic violence or sexual assault victims would feel like they got fair treatment in his courtroom, or if the general public could still feel confidence in the court.
Carolla said that his behavior now – understanding the damage caused and accepting any punishment – shows that he is serious in his position as judge and would hold himself up to higher standards.
When the audio was played back for Russo, “As soon as he heard it, he was very embarrassed and upset,” she said.
Russo’s behavior has been scrutinized recently, including being submitted to a mental health evaluation and having a sexual harassment suit filed against him.
He had filed a lawsuit against two judges claiming that they were discriminating against him because he has a disabled son.
This issue was also brought up in the Supreme Court. According to the discussion, there was a hearing regarding Russo’s adult son with disabilities. The date of the hearing had changed and he needed to take a day off from a busy schedule to attend it. He had contacted Jill Vito, manager of Ocean County’s family court, and asked her to speak to her equal in Burlington to try to arrange for his day off.
Late last year, Rabner had ordered Russo to work in Burlington County instead of Ocean, where he was overseeing civil matters rather than criminal.
“He understands the impact his words had on others,” Carolla said. “Today he is not making excuses. He did not intend to hurt others.”
Rabner said the court would take the matter into advisement.