A judicial board has accused a New Jersey judge of mistreating a woman by asking her if she tried closing her legs to stop a sexual assault by a man she was seeking a restraining order against.
The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of unethical judicial conduct, filed a complaint on Monday against Superior Court of New Jersey Judge John F. Russo Jr.
Russo made the comments during a 2016 hearing for a woman who was seeking a restraining order against a man after he allegedly physically and verbally abused her, threatened to burn her house down, stole from her, threatened to take her daughter away from her, and forced her to have sex with him against her will, according to the complaint.
After the woman testified that she was forced to have sex with the defendant, Russo began asking how she would "stop somebody from having intercourse with you."
The woman suggested that she would try physically harming them, tell them no, or try to run away.
Russo then questioned her, "Block your body parts? Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?"
The complaint said Russo was "discourteous and mistreated the victim." The panel said Russo violated judicial conduct codes by assuming the role of a defense attorney and asking the victim questions that were irrelevant for the purpose of granting a restraining order.
During the hearing, Russo pressed the woman to describe how the sexual assault took place even though she said she was not pressing charges against the man for the alleged rape.
Here is the transcript of the conversation that took place between Russo and the woman after she testified about the alleged sexual assault.
RUSSO: Well, you have to tell me about it.
WOMAN: Well, we got back from Home Depot and—
RUSSO: About what time?
WOMAN: It was, I'm not really sure about the time. It might've been around maybe one, two o'clock. And we did have sex against my will, but I'm not pressing charges against it.
RUSSO: Right. But you have to tell me what happened.
WOMAN: Well, he—
RUSSO: I understand that you're not pressing charges, but that's not what we're dealing with here.
WOMAN: Yeah. Okay. Okay.
RUSSO: So you have to tell me what happened.
WOMAN: Okay. Well, we got back from Home Depot and I made a joke, saying, "What time does your wife come home? We have a couple minutes." And next thing I know, that's what happened. So I was like, you know, I wasn't planning on having sex with him. So, you know what I mean?
RUSSO: No, I don't.
WOMAN: I don't know how to make it any clearer. I — we had sex, but it was against my will. I wasn't planning on having sex with him. So he was like — we were standing in the kitchen and he pulled my pants down, and that's what happened.
The defendant's attorney then cross-examined the woman about the alleged sexual assault, at which time Russo also began questioning her.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Okay. Would it be fair to say that you got many unwanted advances from men that were overly sexual during your time as a dancer, correct?
RUSSO: Objection. Where are we going here?
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That she's more capable of asserting herself in a situation where she's confronted by somebody with unwanted sexual advances.
RUSSO: Maybe ask the question. See what she gives you, and see if you need to go...
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Would it be fair to say, Ms. R., that you are capable of asserting yourself against unwanted sexual advances?
WOMAN: I guess so. I don't really know.
RUSSO: I'm sorry, but, "I guess so," is not an answer. Do you understand the question?
WOMAN: Not really, I don't understand the question.
RUSSO: I'll ask the question then.
RUSSO: Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?
RUSSO: How would you do that?
WOMAN: I'd probably physically harm them somehow.
RUSSO: Short of physically harming them?
WOMAN: Tell them no.
RUSSO: Tell them no. What else?
WOMAN: To stop.
RUSSO: To stop. What else?
WOMAN: And to run away or try to get away.
RUSSO: Run away, get away. Anything else?
WOMAN: I — that's all I know.
RUSSO: Block your body parts?
RUSSO: Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?
The committee's complaint included several other instances of Russo allegedly violating judicial conduct, including his failure to recuse himself from a spousal support case where he knew the former couple. In that case, Russo reduced the back alimony his friend owed to his ex-wife from $10,000 to $300.
"Judge Russo looks forward to having a public hearing so that he will be able to respond to the allegations which have been lodged against him," Russo's attorney, David F. Corrigan, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday. "Both Judge Russo and myself have the greatest respect for the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and the process and therefore we believe it will be inappropriate to make any comment at this time," he said.
Russo was barred from his judicial duties in April 2017 and has been on paid administrative leave since May, after refusing to submit to a mental health evaluation ordered by his boss, Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford.
In a court filing last year, Ford cited several incidents in which Russo "made threatening or bizarre statements; exhibited explosive fits of rage; lacked appropriate courtroom demeanor or reasonable legal competence in the field of law assigned to him, and otherwise exhibited extreme emotional immaturity," the Asbury Park Press reported.
These incidents included Russo allegedly throwing a file at his law clerk and asking her if all her children were from the same father. Ford also complained about Russo's "juvenile" behavior of having a "poop emoji" picture hanging in his chambers.
Russo responded to the allegations by filing a workplace discrimination lawsuit against Ford and his other bosses by claiming that they treated him unfairly because he has a son with disabilities.
Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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