N.J. judge, whose advice was ‘close your legs’ to prevent sexual assault, removed from bench

From left, Carol Gay, Joni Brennan Catherine Hunt and JJ Mistretta hold signs at a protest in Freehold to demand the removal of Judges Troiano and Silva on July 11, 2019. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

From left, Carol Gay, Joni Brennan Catherine Hunt and JJ Mistretta hold signs at a protest in Freehold to demand the removal of Judges Troiano and Silva on July 11, 2019. (Nicholas Pugliese/WHYY)

A New Jersey judge who suggested that a woman seeking a restraining order could “close your legs” to prevent a sexual assault was removed from the bench Tuesday by the New Jersey Supreme Court and permanently barred from presiding over a courtroom.

The unanimous decision cited “repeated and serious acts of misconduct” by state Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that it would be “inconceivable” for Russo to preside over domestic violence or sexual assault matters after those comments.

The justices had recommended last summer that Russo be removed from the bench, and a three-judge advisory panel agreed in January.

Russo, who had worked in Ocean and Burlington counties since his 2015 appointment, had been on unpaid suspension while appealing those decisions. His attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

In court filings and at a hearing in December, Russo expressed remorse for his comments to the woman and for joking about the exchange with court personnel afterward.

He also has argued that the Supreme Court’s penalty is excessive because an advisory panel on judicial conduct had last year recommended a three-month unpaid suspension.

The woman appeared before Russo in 2016 seeking a restraining order against a man she said threatened her life and forced her to have sex against her will. According to a transcript of the exchange, when the woman described her encounter with the man, Russo asked her, “Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?”

When the woman answered yes and said one method would be to run away, Russo continued, “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”

He also made joking comments to staffers about the exchange after the woman had left the courtroom, according to a report issued by the judicial conduct committee.

Russo has contended that he was trying only to elicit more information and that he chose his words poorly, and that he has acknowledged his mistake.

Rabner, on the other hand, wrote that the comments were not only “wholly unwarranted, discourteous and inappropriate,” but they “also shamed the alleged victim by intolerably suggesting that she was to blame.”

The January report by the three-judge panel noted four instances of misconduct by Russo — including a matrimonial matter for which he did not recuse himself even though he knew someone involved.

The panel found his testimony regarding two of the allegations “lacked candor, fabricated after-the-fact explanations for events, and displayed a lack of integrity that is unworthy of judicial office.”

Removal proceedings began against Russo in July on the same day that another state Superior Court judge, James Troiano, stepped down amid national outrage over comments he made in an unrelated 2017 case.

Troiano appeared to suggest that a 16-year-old boy accused of raping a 16-year-old girl should not be tried as an adult, in part, because he was an Eagle Scout and came from a “good family.”

WHYY reporter Nicholas Pugliese contributed to this story.

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