TRENTON, N.J. – An ethics committee has recommended a three-month, unpaid suspension for a New Jersey judge who told a woman she could “close your legs” to prevent a sexual assault.
The committee released its recommendation to the state Supreme Court Wednesday in the case of Superior Court Judge John Russo, who sits on the bench in Ocean County in southern New Jersey. He has been on administrative leave since 2017.
The woman appeared before Russo in 2016 seeking a restraining order against a man she said sexually assaulted her. 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 affirmatively and said one method would be to run away, Russo continued, “Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?”
In court filings and at a hearing, Russo has disputed that he violated judicial rules, saying he was seeking more information and wasn’t trying to humiliate the woman.
A message seeking comment about the committee’s recommendations was left with Russo’s lawyer.
Russo’s conduct “was not only discourteous and inappropriate, but also egregious given the potential for those questions to re-victimize the plaintiff,” the panel wrote Wednesday.
The panel also concluded Russo violated rules of conduct on other occasions, including when he ruled on an alimony case in which he acknowledged he knew both parties.
In that case, according to the complaint, Russo reversed an order by another judge who had issued a bench warrant for the man unless he paid $10,000 in back alimony. Russo ultimately reduced that to $300.
In addition to the suspension, the panel recommended that Russo be required to attend training on “appropriate courtroom demeanor.”
Russo will have a chance to respond to the panel’s recommendation in advance of a final hearing on the matter in July.