A New Jersey Superior Court judge who asked a woman if she had closed her legs to try to prevent a sexual assault has been ordered removed from the bench by the state’s highest court, which concluded his behavior made it “inconceivable” that he could ever handle cases of domestic violence or sexual assault.
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the judge, John F. Russo Jr., who served in Ocean County, should be removed from the bench “effective immediately.”
Mr. Russo could not immediately be reached for comment. His lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The court said it based its decision on Judge Russo’s exchange with the woman and three other violations of judicial conduct codes. The woman who went before Judge Russo in May 2016 had asked to extend a restraining order against a man whom she accused of sexual assault. She said the man had also threatened her life and made inappropriate comments to their child.
“Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?” Judge Russo asked the woman during a hearing.
“Yes,” she replied.
“How would you do that?” the judge asked.
The woman said she would try to physically harm the attacker and say “no,” to which Judge Russo asked, “What else?”
The woman said she would ask the person to stop, to which Judge Russo again asked, “What else?”
She then said she would run away.
“Run away, get away,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Block your body parts?” Judge Russo added. “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
During disciplinary hearings about the case, Judge Russo said that he was trying to help the woman become “re-engaged” during her testimony and provide more information about her account, court documents said.
“I was really struggling to find out is this a case where there really is something going on and a witness who’s just not capable of expressing it or is there something else going on,” he said.
In April 2019 the state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct decided that Judge Russo should be suspended without pay for three months for his remarks from the bench and for the other violations, including his failure to recuse himself from a hearing that involved a man he knew from high school. The man, who owned a pizza parlor the judge admitted to frequenting, had been accused of failing to pay child support. Judge Russo reduced the amount he owed from $10,000 to $300, according to the ruling.
The committee also said that Judge Russo had threatened a woman in a paternity case with financial penalties and a loss of credibility with the court when she told him she was afraid to give her address.
“‘We’re all going to find you,’” Judge Russo said in a crowded courtroom, according to the court documents.
A three-judge panel later concluded that Judge Russo should be removed from office.
In the case of the woman seeking a restraining order, the New Jersey Supreme Court dismissed Judge Russo’s explanation that he was trying to help a demoralized witness express herself.
Justice Rabner, writing on behalf of the seven-member court, noted that the woman “plainly testified” that her assailant forced her to have sex with him.
“She did so without needing any assistance from the trial judge to express herself,” Justice Rabner wrote.
After the hearings in 2016, Judge Russo did not issue the woman the restraining order she had requested. After the hearing, he also made “problematic” comments in front of his staff following the woman’s testimony, Justice Rabner said in the decision.
Judge Russo said that “as an exotic dancer” the woman should have known how to fend off unwanted advances, according to court documents.
He also told his staff: “I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”
“Judges set the tone for a courtroom,” Justice 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.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.