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Township’s Presiding Municipal Court Judge Charged With Ethics Violations Over ‘Inappropriate’ Remark

An alleged sexually charged quip made from the bench to a defendant has landed the township’s presiding Municipal Court judge in hot water with the state.

The state Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct on Dec. 12 filed a formal complaint against Judge Hector Rodriguez, charging him with violating three canons of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

Rodriguez has 20 days to respond to the complaint, after which a formal hearing will be held.

According to the complaint, Rodriguez was hearing a First Appearance on Dec. 5, 2017 for a female defendant charged with several indictable offenses. During the discussion on bail, after Rodgriguez said the woman would be released on her own recognizance, the woman, still not understanding, asked if she owed the court anything, according to the complaint.

“Not that you can do in front of all these people, no,” Rodriguez replied, according to the complaint.

“When (Rodriguez) made the comment to the Defendant … (Rodriguez) knew that no payment from the Defendant was required because she was being released on her own recognizance,” the complaint stated. “Even if the Defendant were required to post bail to secure her release, payment would have been made in Pretrial Services or the Bail Unit, not to (Rodriguez) directly.”

Somerset County Assistant Prosecutor Lauren Casale and Public Defender Anthony Cowell discussed Rodriguez’s comment outside the courtroom, according to the complaint, and “agreed that it was inappropriate and that it should be reported.”

The two then spoke with Audra L. McEvoy, a team leader in the Pretrial Services Unit for Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties, who was in the courtroom at the time, operating the court’s recording equipment. McEvoy agreed that the comment was inappropriate, and said she would speak to her supervisor, Brian Rother, the assistant criminal division manager in the Pretrial Services Unit, according to the complaint.

McEvoy also emailed Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone and Presiding Judge William Kelleher with an account of the incident, according to the complaint.

Rodriguez denied there was any sexual intent behind the comment when he responded to a question from the ACJC.

“You can’t take it out of context,” Rodriguez is quoted as saying in the complaint. “You take a statement and flip it around, throw it in the air, put spice on it and put it back into that – it’s going to be the same when you – – in the context of what I said. It was all about the monetary bail. And I – – and she seemed confused. I said, well, you seem – – I didn’t say confused. And she goes do I owe you anything and I was like not that you would give me in front of all these people referring to money, a monetary bail.”

Rodriguez has been charged with violating rules in Canons 1, 2 and 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct:

“Canon 1, Rule 1.1, which requires judges to observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved;

“Canon 2, Rule 2.1, which requires judges to avoid the impropriety and the appearance of impropriety and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; and

“Canon 3, Rule 3 .5, which requires judges to ~e patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity,” according to the complaint.

This is not the first time Rodriguez’s comments have caused him trouble.

In October 2016, a Florida man filed charges against the judge with the ACJC over a comment Rodriguez allegedly made during traffic court.

Sudeep Khetani, an Indian-American, said that during the hearing, Rodriguez asked him when he was returning to Florida, according to a published report.

When Khetani answered him, he said, the judge said that he should be careful when driving through Virginia because immigration might stop and detain him.

There is no further information on that complaint. The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct only goes public with a complaint if formal charges are filed.

Rodriguez, whose term expires in December 2019, was also caught up in one of several scandals enveloping Township Councilman Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large).

County and state officials are apparently investigating an incident in which Prasad steered a township landlord to Rodriguez for help in a legal matter. In emails describing the interaction, Prasad told the landlord to mention his name when speaking with Rodriguez.

 

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