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Former Municipal Court Judge Reprimanded For ‘Inappropriate’ Comment

The state Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded a former township Municipal Court Judge over what it said was an “inappropriate” remark made to a female defendant appearing before him in 2017.

The Supreme Court agreed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct that a comment made by former Municipal Court Judge Hector Rodriguez was sexual in nature and violated three of the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Rodriguez denied that the comment was sexual in nature, and said that he was merely trying to clear up confusion on the female defendant’s part about a bail issue.

Rodriguez, a New Brunswick-based attorney, served as an associate and then presiding Municipal Court Judge from 2014 to 2019, but was not reappointed to the position in 2020. While a judge, he was on a list of state municipal court judges authorized to handle criminal first appearances.

The reprimand stems from comments Rodriguez made to a female defendant making her first appearance before him on several indictable charges on December 5, 2017.

According to the complaint from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the woman seemed confused about whether she was going to need to pay any bail. She asked Rodriguez if she owed anything, to which he replied, “Not that you can do in front of all these people, no.”

According to the complaint, the Assistant Prosecutor, the Public Defender and the court employee recording the hearing all felt the comment was sexual in nature and made the complaint.

A formal complaint was made against Rodriguez by the ACJC in December of 2018. The complaint charged him with violating three canons of the Code of judicial Conduct:

  • To participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing, and . . . [to] personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity, impartiality and independence of the judiciary is preserved.”
  • To act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and . . . [to] avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
  • To treat all those with whom they interact in an official capacity, including litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others, with courtesy, dignity and patience.

“(T)he evidence presented demonstrates, clearly and convincingly, that Respondent failed to conduct himself in a manner consistent with the above referenced high ethical standards,” the ACJC wrote in its presentment. “We find Respondent’s statement –- ‘[n]ot that you can do in front of all these people, no’ — in response to the defendant’s inquiry about whether she owed anything to the court in connection with a payment for bail, inappropriate.”

“We reject as unpersuasive Respondent’s asserted defense that his remark to the defendant concerned monetary bail and only meant to clarify to the defendant that she did not owe any payment to the court,” the presentment continued. “The subject statement, on its face, suggests to its intended recipient that there was something she could do for Respondent in private, outside of the presence of those in the courtroom and unrelated to bail, that would satisfy her obligations in respect of the criminal charge. Given the defendant’s ROR release, we find Respondent’s explanation incongruous and the witnesses’ interpretation of his remark as a sexual innuendo and their subsequent offense reasonable.”

“Whether Respondent intended his words as a sexually suggestive remark, an attempt at humor, or something else, Respondent knew or should have known that his choice of words was inappropriate because of the negative inferences which reasonably could, and, in this case, were drawn from the manner in which he phrased his response to the defendant’s inquiry,” the presentment reads. “Such remarks have no place in our judicial system and must be assiduously avoided by all members of the Judiciary, particularly its jurists.”

Further, the Committee wrote in its presentment, “The Committee finds Respondent’s failure to appreciate the impropriety of his remark and his refusal to concede that it could reasonably be considered as inappropriate to aggravate his misconduct in this instance.”

The Committee’s presentment noted that seven attorneys submitted character letters supporting Rodriguez.

Although it commended Rodriguez for his five years of service to the township, the Committee did not feel that the issues brought up in the letters were significant enough to avoid discipline.

“We find these mitigating factors, though significant, inadequate when weighed against the aggravating circumstances and Respondent’s unethical conduct in this instance, for which we recommend a public reprimand,” the Committee wrote.

The Supreme Court’s order was issued on October 12.

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