A New Jersey Superior Court Judge was removed from the bench after asking a victim of a sexual assault in May of 2016 if she’d tried closing her legs in order to fend off the unwanted sex.
In a decision filed by the New Jersey Supreme Court Tuesday, John F. Russo was removed from judicial office and never is allowed to be a judge in the state again.
Russo was removed on four counts of “repeated and serious acts of misconduct,” and had been on administrative leave since Dec. of 2017, according to court documents. He was appointed to the Family Division Courts in Ocean County in Dec. 2015. In his brief time in that court, he managed a “series of ethical failures” that were “flagrant and serious acts of misconduct,” the NJ Supreme Court wrote.
Former Judge Russo Said Since the Woman had been an Exotic Dancer She Should’ve Known How to Fend off Unwanted Advances
The unnamed woman in the case went to Russo’s court in May 2016 asking for a final restraining order on a man she’d been in a relationship with. The couple had a 5-year-old daughter.
The woman claimed that over the years the man had “physically and verbally abused her, disabled her car and left her stranded, threatened to burn her house down, stole from her, threatened to take their daughter away from her if she ever left him, and forced her to have sex with him against her will,” according to the complaint against Russo.
During the court proceedings, Russo took over the line of questioning. He said, “Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?”
The woman responded that she would try to “physically harm them somehow,” or say no, say to stop. She said she would try to run away, then she said she didn’t know what else.
That’s when Russo said, “Block your body parts?
“Yeah,” she responded.
Russo said, “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
The woman told the judge that she had told him to stop, that she tried to get away.
“He was like holding me like — there was like a chair and he was like holding me like, you know, like he was like forceful, like I really couldn’t do anything,” she said.
After the woman had left the court room the next inappropriate thing Russo did, according to court documents, was discuss the matter with his aides, which was recorded. He said, “Well, then, as an exotic dancer, one would think you would know how to fend off unwanted sexual —[the sound trails off].”
A little later he could be heard on the recording saying, “I am the master of on the record being able to talk about sex acts with a straight face.”
When an unidentified person asked him if he meant “without laughing” Russo replied, “Yup.”
The NY Supreme Court said of Russo’s behavior:
The conduct… reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and seriousness of domestic violence and sexual assault matters, disrespectful treatment of an alleged victim, and an inability to maintain decorum in a court of law. Respondent’s explanations under oath about what occurred also reveal a lack of candor on multiple occasions, which factors into our judgment in this matter.
Russo Was Also Found to be a Judge Who Abused his Power
Besides the inappropriate questioning of a woman who was seeking a restraining order on a man she said she’d suffered abuse from for multiple years, the court also found that Russo abused his power.
In the three other counts that he was found guilty of, in one case he told a mother who was a defendant in a paternity case who didn’t want to give her address because she was scared that, “He’s going to find you Ma’am. We’re all going to find you.”
The Supreme Court also found that Russo had pulled strings in the court to rearrange a guardianship trial with his wife over their child to suit his needs, and he side-stepped verification protocol to help an old friend from high school get the back child support he owed down from $10,000 to $300, according to the court.
“His pattern of misconduct and unethical behavior not only undermined the integrity of different court proceedings but also impaired his integrity and the Judiciary’s. His overall behavior reflects a lack of probity and fitness to serve as a judge. And his conduct breached the public’s trust,” the NJSC said.