New Jersey judges have drawn fire recently for making “insensitive” comments about sexual assault victims. Now the state Supreme Court has stepped in with rare actions and an initiative to better prepare judges for such cases.
New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an order yesterday removing longtime state Family Court Judge James Troiano from the bench, at the latter’s own request, after inflammatory comments he made regarding a sexual assault case became national news. (Troiano retired in 2012 but continued part-time to hear cases in Monmouth County.)
Also, on Wednesday, the high court entered an order for removal from office of Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr., who in a 2016 case suggested an alleged rape victim should “close her legs.”
These actions were notable in themselves. Maybe more lasting, the court initiated a new training regimen for all Superior Court judges concerning the treatment of sexual assault victims and other victims of violence.
The sudden slew of decisions come out of a scandal that has brewed the last several months. Troiano presided over a 2018 case wherein the accused teenage boy allegedly sent a recording of himself sexually assaulting a visibly intoxicated 16-year-old girl to his friends along with a text that read, “When your first time is rape.” The judge ruled the boy should not be tried as an adult and referenced his good grades and the fact that he “comes from a good family who put him in an excellent school.” An appeals court overturned Troiano’s decision.
Rallies, petitions to remove judges
In the wake of both incidents — as well as a case where Superior Court Judge Marcia Silva ruled a 12-year-old girl who claimed she was assaulted did not “suffer any further injuries” aside from “losing her virginity” — advocates, lawmakers, and those familiar with the traumas of sexual assault held rallies and petitioned Gov. Phil Murphy to remove all three judges. They raised questions of bias within the state’s judicial system and noted comments like those made by judges Russo, Troiano, and Silva make rape survivors less likely to come forward and report their abuse. The Supreme Court made no comment on Silva.
The governor weighed in quickly on yesterday’s developments. “New Jersey’s judiciary has long been held up by observers across the nation as a model for other states,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the inexcusable actions of several judges over recent months have threatened this reputation for thoughtful and reasoned opinion, and common decency.”
“I am gratified that Judge Troiano will no longer sit on the bench and that removal proceedings will begin against Judge Russo,” he added.
Although removal proceedings have begun for Russo, he has the right to a hearing before a three-judge panel. The panel’s findings would then be presented to the court for consideration.
Mandatory training for all judges
The Supreme Court also announced it will be establishing a “Judiciary Enhanced Education and Training Initiative,” focused on training judges in the areas of sexual assault, domestic violence, implicit bias, and diversity.
The training will apply to all Superior Court judges, including Supreme Court justices and those in the Tax Court and Appellate Division. Similar mandatory training will be scheduled for all Municipal Court judges. These training sessions will be held every two years.
“These statewide education conferences will serve to enhance understanding of the
complexities and nuances associated with sexual assault, sex offenses, and domestic violence
matters and to raise awareness of the impact of implicit bias on decision-making, while
providing skills for judges to recognize and respond to their preconceptions.” Glenn A. Grant, the acting administrative director of the courts, said in a statement.
“The programs also will train judges in effective communication skills that will aid them in delivering clear decisions that are rooted in the law, respectful of victims, and understandable to the public while protecting the rights of the accused.”
In addition, to reinstate confidence in the courts for sexual violence victims, the Administrative Office of the Courts will establish a web portal where members of the public can provide anonymous feedback on their court experiences.
Several state legislators yesterday praised the moves.
Weinberg: ‘Strong step’ in right direction
“I am grateful for the corrective actions now being taken by our judicial system,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “The comments and behavior of Judges Russo and Troiano were inexcusable and neither of them should remain on the bench.
“I am further encouraged by the Court’s decision to create mandatory trainings in order to prevent and correct this type of behavior in the future, she said in a statement. “This is a strong step in the right direction, one that will go a long way in maintaining the integrity and reputation of our courts for years to come.”
State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) who previously had announced plans to introduce a bill requiring such training for judges, commended the judiciary for “taking seriously the concerns that many of us have raised regarding the abhorrent treatment of sexual assault victims in our state’s courtrooms.”
She said “these are good first steps that will begin the process of restoring the confidence of survivors to seek the justice they deserve through our courts.”
Chief Justice Rabner in his official statement noted that “sexual assault is an act of violence. It terrorizes, degrades, and induces fear in victims. Without question, it is a most serious matter in which fault lies solely with the perpetrator, not the victim. And our State has a strong interest in protecting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.”