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NJ judge permanently removed from bench after asking alleged rape victim if she closed her legs

A New Jersey judge who asked an alleged rape victim in court whether she could have closed her legs to stop the assault has been permanently barred from the bench.

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to remove John Russo Jr. from judicial office.

The former Ocean County Superior Court judge was found to have committed “repeated and serious acts of misconduct,” according to the opinion written on behalf of New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner. 

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“Judges set the tone for a courtroom,” 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. [Russo] failed in that regard.”

NJ.com reported that the decision to remove Russo from the bench had been expected after a three-judge panel recommended his dismissal in January.

He was placed on a three-month suspension without pay last year after the state's Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) criticized his behavior, saying it demonstrated "an emotional immaturity wholly unbefitting the judicial office and incompatible with the decorum expected of every jurist.” 

The woman had appeared in Russo’s court in 2016 seeking a restraining order against the father of her daughter, claiming the man physically and verbally abused her, threatened to burn her house down, stole from her, threatened to take her daughter away and forced her to have sex with him against her will.

Russo is quoted in the court transcript as asking the woman if she knew how to “stop somebody from having intercourse with you.”

The woman said she would try to physically harm her attacker, tell them no or try to flee.

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“Anything else?” Russo asked in her the transcript obtained by NJ.com

"I — that's all I know," the woman said.

"Block your body parts?" Russo said. "Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?"

He ultimately denied her a final restraining order against her alleged attacker.

Russo apologized through his attorney for the remarks and claimed that he was trying to help a “demoralized” witness on cross-examination get “re-engaged in the hearing.”

“That explanation does not square with the record,” Rabner wrote in the opinion.

“No witness, alleged victim, or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law,” the state’s chief justice added.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also found that Russo committed three other incidents of misconduct. The four allegations were viewed together and the court declared in its opinion that Russo’s “overall behavior reflects a lack of probity and fitness to serve as a judge. And his conduct breached the public’s trust."

Russo in 2016 called a mother involved in a paternity case and threatened her with financial penalties if she didn’t disclose her address.

“He’s going to find you, ma’am,” Russo reportedly said during the phone conversation in a crowded courtroom. “We’re all going to find you.”

Rabner wrote that the questions were “insensitive, threatening, discourteous” and reflected “poorly on his temperament.”

Another count had determined that Russo violated state code when he presided over a case despite announcing in the court that he had known the defendant since high school. 

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The man had been arrested for failing to pay child support and Russo then dropped the defendant’s amount owed from $10,000 to $300 based on uncorroborated financial information provided by the man.

Rabner wrote that the move “raised doubts” about Russo’s ability to be impartial.

Lastly, Russo was found to have asked a “high-level court employee” who worked in the same courthouse as him to help him reschedule his guardianship case involving his ex-wife and their son, even though the case was in the other county.

The high court found that Russo should have gone through his attorney for the personal request.

A lawyer representing Russo did not immediately respond to NJ.com’s request for comment.