In 2018, A New Jersey judge said a 16-year-old boy accused of sexual assault should not be tried as an adult because he came from a “good family.”
Two years prior, another Garden State judge asked a woman if she had attempted to close her legs to stop a sexual assault.
Now, neither of the judges who made those statements will be sitting on the bench, as the comments came to light in recent months in judicial rulings, sparking new national backlash over how the criminal justice system handles sexual assault cases.
New Jersey’s high court has announced that, in addition to new mandatory training for justices, the state has suspended the judge in the 2016 case, while the other judge has resigned.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey said Wednesday that Judge James Troiano of Monmouth County, N.J., had resigned following weeks of protest over his “good family” rationale in declining to try a teen boy accused of rape as an adult. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in a statement that Troiano’s resignation was “effective immediately.”
That same day, Rabner recommended that Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr. of Ocean County, N.J., be removed from the bench months after local media first reported on his comments to a sexual assault victim about closing her legs. Russo has been suspended without pay from his job, which pays him $181,000 annually, according to NJ.com.
“Sexual assault is an act of violence,” Rabner wrote. “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.”
The chief justice added:
The Supreme Court’s decisions were met with praise by state lawmakers, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who said the discipline would “uphold the reputation of our judiciary and ensure that all who seek justice are treated with dignity and respect.”
The New Jersey cases came to light as Americans have grappled with sexual assault cases where the young men are often seen to be favored over their female accusers. Other judges have also recently lost their gavels over such controversial decisions, as in Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Russo, 57, was questioning a woman in 2016 who was seeking a restraining order for the father of her 5-year-old daughter — the man who had sexually assaulted her. According to a transcript from a court advisory panel that was released in this spring, Russo asked, “Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?”
“Close your legs? Call the police?” Russo asked. “Did you do any of those things?”
Shortly afterward, Russo reportedly joked about the case with his staff. “What did you think of that? Did you hear the sex stuff?” he asked, according to the panel’s report.
In April, a panel recommended that Russo be suspended for three months, adding that his behavior showed “an emotional immaturity wholly unbefitting the judicial office and incompatible with the decorum expected of every jurist.” On Wednesday, the state also announced that it had started proceedings to remove Russo from the bench for good. The Associated Press reported that Russo has until next month to respond to the state Supreme Court’s order and contest the removal order.
“He has learned his lesson,” said attorney Amelia Carolla, according to the Asbury Park Press. “He will not do this again.”
In 2018, Troiano, 69, was called in from retirement to hear the case of an alleged rape at a pajama-themed party the previous year. Police said a 16-year-old boy, identified as G.M.C. by court documents, filmed himself assaulting a 16-year-old girl from behind. This came after the two teens, who prosecutors say were intoxicated, went off to a dark area, where a group of boys sprayed the girl with Febreze and hit her so hard she found hand marks the next day. According to court documents, G.M.C. allegedly sent a video of the girl, who had slurred speech and stumbled, with the caption: “When your first time having sex was rape.”
But Troiano dismissed those remarks as “just a 16-year-old kid saying stupid crap to his friends.” He then denied a waiver to try G.M.C. as an adult, citing the boy’s pedigree and potential.
“This young man comes from a good family who put him into an excellent school where he was doing extremely well,” Troiano said in his July 2018 decision. “He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college. His scores for college entry were very high.”
In addition to expressing doubt about whether the boy showed any “calculation or cruelty on his part or sophistication or a predatory nature,” Troiano also suggested the girl’s allegation did not meet the standard of rape.
“There have been some, not many, but some cases of sexual assault involving juveniles which in my mind absolutely were the traditional case of rape,” the judge said, according to BuzzFeed News, “where there were generally two or more generally males involved, either at gunpoint or weapon, clearly manhandling a person into ... an area where ... there was nobody around, sometimes in an abandon[ed] house, sometimes in an abandon[ed] shed, shack, and just simply taking advantage of the person as well as beating the person, threatening the person.”
The state Supreme Court’s disciplinary rulings came as critics have called for another New Jersey judge to leave the bench over her handling of a sexual assault case. In June, an appeals court rebuked Superior Court Judge Marcia Silva who ruled this year that a 16-year-old boy’s alleged sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl was not considered “an especially heinous or cruel offense” and that he should not be tried as an adult.
“The victim did not suffer any physical or emotional injuries as a result, other than the ramifications of losing her virginity, which the court does not find to be especially serious harm in this case,” the Middlesex County judge said, according to NJ.com.
Although at least 14 members of the state Assembly have called for the 44-year-old’s removal, no action has been made against Silva, NJ.com reported. Murphy, the state’s governor, urged caution in moving too quickly to remove judges linked to insensitive comments and procedure on sexual assault cases.