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In re Yengo

Decided: March 4, 1977.

IN THE MATTER OF JOHN W. YENGO, JUDGE OF THE MUNICIPAL COURT OF THE CITY OF JERSEY CITY, COUNTY OF HUDSON


For removal from office -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman and Clifford and Judge Conford. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Hughes, C.J.

Hughes

The Court considers in this case the matter of removal of a Judge of the Municipal Court of Jersey City, John W. Yengo, for cause involving his judicial conduct. Our jurisdictional role in examining that question rests upon a foundation of constitutional and statutory responsibility. N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VI, § II, par. 3; N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-1 et seq.

In fairness to respondent, we note at the outset that no suggestion is made of judicial corruption, personal dishonesty or conflict, or irregularities such as the "fixing" of traffic tickets, tampering with court records or misconduct of that sort. As will be seen, the gravamen of the charge has to do with persistent misbehavior in his judicial performance so bizarre as to amount to "misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty, or other conduct evidencing unfitness for judicial office, or * * * incompetence," designated by N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-2, as statutory causes for removal.

PROCEEDINGS AND JURISDICTION

The 1947 Constitution vested the judicial power of the State in a Supreme Court, a Superior Court, County Courts and "inferior courts of limited jurisdiction," and provided that "[t]he inferior courts and their jurisdiction may from time to time be established, altered or abolished by law." Art. VI, § I, par. 1. The Legislature thereupon authorized the establishment of the Municipal Court, N.J.S.A. 2A:8-1

et seq., first designating its presiding officer as "municipal magistrate," 2A:8-5, and later as "judge of the municipal court." 2A:8-5.1. That is the office occupied by respondent, from which he has been temporarily suspended.

The statute which provides for the removal of such a judge, for one or more of the causes mentioned, outlines further procedures as follows:

2A:1B-3. Institution of removal proceedings

A proceeding for removal may be instituted by either house of the Legislature acting by a majority of all its members, or the Governor, by the filing of a complaint with the clerk of the supreme court, or such proceeding may be instituted by the Supreme Court on its own motion.

2A:1B-4. Prosecution of removal proceedings

The Attorney General or his representative shall prosecute the proceedings unless the Supreme Court shall specially designate an attorney for that purpose.

2A:1B-5. Suspension pending determination

The Supreme Court may suspend a judge from office, with or without pay, pending the determination of the proceeding; provided, however, that a judge shall receive pay for the period of suspension exceeding 90 days.

2A:1B-6. Preparation of defense; counsel; production of witnesses and evidence

The judge shall be given a reasonable time to prepare his defense and shall be entitled to be represented by counsel. The prosecuting attorney and the judge shall have the right of compulsory process to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of evidence at the hearing.

2A:1B-7. Taking of evidence

Evidence may be taken either before the Supreme Court sitting en banc, or before three justices or judges, or a combination thereof, specially designated therefor by the Chief Justice.

2A:1B-8. Rules governing

Except as otherwise provided in this act, proceedings shall be governed by rules of the Supreme Court.

2A:1B-9. Removal

If the Supreme Court finds beyond a reasonable doubt that there is cause for removal, it shall remove the judge from office. A judge so removed shall not thereafter hold judicial office.

The proceedings are further governed, as provided in N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-8, by Rules of Court, R. 2:14-1 et seq., as amplified and largely superseded by R. 2:15 et seq., adopted

in July 1974, describing detailed mechanisms for judicial removal, as well as alternatives, and preliminary proceedings with respect thereto. See Pressler, Current New Jersey Court Rules, Comment R. 2:14.

R. 2:15-1 et seq. created the Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. That Committee received and processed complaints against respondent. Its Presentment and Recommendation for Institution of Formal Removal Proceedings, read in part as follows:

This matter was brought to the attention of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct when several transcripts of trials before the respondent John W. Yengo who was appointed Judge of the Municipal Court of Jersey City on July 11, 1974, were referred to the Committee. After a preliminary investigation was conducted, a verified seventeen count complaint and supplemental complaint were filed with the Committee and served on the respondent. Following the receipt of respondent's answer to the complaint, the matter was set down for hearing before the Committee on June 23, July 8, and September 12, 1975 and at the hearings numerous witnesses testified, transcripts of testimony of the cases being studied, and other pertinent documents were marked in evidence. Respondent cross-examined the witnesses, produced witnesses in his defense, and testified extensively in his own behalf. At the conclusion of the hearings, the Committee reserved decision, and after a full study of the matter, concluded that the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that (a) Judge Yengo is by temperament unsuited for judicial office, (b) he is unable to perform the duties of his office impartially, dispassionately and with the dignity required of a judge of a municipal court, (c) he is unable to understand or unwilling to accept and apply the basic doctrine in criminal and quasi-criminal cases that the State has the burden of proving the charge against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the accused on being charged does not have an initial function of establishing his innocence. For these reasons, the Committee feels strongly that the public interest in the administration of justice can be served only by the removal of Judge Yengo from the Municipal Court of Jersey City.

This Court issued an order to show cause which led to the voluntary suspension of respondent from his judicial office pending the outcome of the proceedings. Following a hearing, respondent's motion to dismiss was denied. On the basis of the Presentment of the Committee the Court ordered the

issuance of a complaint instituting formal removal proceedings. Three judges of the Superior Court were appointed to take evidence, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-7.

Thereafter that "statutory court" conducted hearings encompassing many days, fully participated in by respondent and counsel representing him. Testimony was taken of witnesses including respondent and those called by him. Court records and transcripts of cases heard before respondent were admitted and scrutinized, and the statutory court listened to many tapes of actual proceedings in his courtroom. It determined and reported facts and conclusions related to his fitness to continue in judicial office, and filed with this Court transcripts of the voluminous testimony, and exhibits admitted before it.

This Court thereupon reached independent conclusions of its own on the evidence so taken, as will be mentioned hereafter, on the focal question assigned to it by statute: "If the Supreme Court finds beyond a reasonable doubt that there is cause for removal, it shall remove the judge from office." N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-9. We observe that throughout all these extensive hearings and proceedings, including respondent's appearances with counsel in answer to several show cause orders and the Court's consideration and denial of several motions, careful attention has been paid, as should be, to the full due process rights of respondent.

THE NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURT SYSTEM*fn1

A look at the history of the local administration of justice before and after the 1947 Constitution is important in order

to assess respondent's judicial performance in the context of constitutional, legislative and public expectations of the judicial conduct required of the present-day municipal judge.

The earlier period of the administration of criminal justice at the local level was described by then Chief Justice Vanderbilt at an Annual Conference of Municipal Magistrates and Attorneys, reprinted at 10 Rutgers L. Rev. 647-48 (1956):

Under our revolutionary Constitution of 1776 the justices of the peace, along with the judges of the other courts, were elected by the Legislature for a term of years. Their position in the community was roughly comparable to that of the English justices of the peace of the same period * * * who [were] generally the leading citizens of the county with a tradition of public service. One of the ways in which our second Constitution, that of 1844, reflected the democratic revolt of the Jacksonian era was in providing for the popular election of justices of the peace by townships and in the cities by wards. Such elections, here and elsewhere throughout the country generally, reflected the popular demand of the period for the direct election of judges who would be "close to the people," and no thought was given to imposing any standards or qualifications for the office. Thus the New Jersey Constitution of 1844 put the justice of the peace in local politics with the undesirable results that inevitably flow from mixing judicial work and politics. The election of a justice of the peace as a prank of his neighbors was not unknown, and the office shrank in dignity and usefulness.*fn2

He recalled that in the cities the police judges had taken over the bulk of the criminal jurisdiction of the justices of the peace under a mass of statutes varying in application from municipality to municipality. Thus there was created a jurisdictional chaos. The low estate of the police courts, the "justly maligned" justices of the peace, as well as the confusing, inefficient and frequently condemned system by which the compensation of those judges depended in part on the penalties they assessed against defendants they found guilty of some offense (a practice that had been responsible for bringing many a local court into disrepute), were conditions noted with disapproval by Chief Justice Vanderbilt as well as the public at large.

He then contrasted developments after the new Constitution was adopted:

[I]t was no wonder that there was no storm of protest over the exclusion of the justice of the peace from the 1947 Constitution, but instead general acquiescence in the resolution of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention memorializing the Legislature

to take such action as may be deemed necessary to establish a modern and efficient inferior court system to be presided over by qualified persons and to provide that all judges of the inferior courts receive reasonable fixed compensation which shall have no relation to fees received.

The Legislature acted promptly in response to this mandate by enacting [a law] which abolished not only the justices of the peace, but also "the existing police, magistrate, or recorder's courts, by whatever name called" and provided for the establishment of our present system of municipal courts. [10 Rutgers L. Rev. at 648-49].

In light of this reform in the municipal court system, Chief Justice Vanderbilt stressed the importance of these courts, expressing a caveat to the constitutional characterization of them as "inferior" courts (actually a term of art, not implying any disrespect). He believed that the local courts of first instance are the very foundation of the enforcement of the criminal law; that upon them rests primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace in the various

communities of the State, for safety on our streets and highways, and most important of all, for the development of respect for law on the part of our citizenry, upon which in the last analysis all of our democratic institutions depend. He said "[t]his is the underlying reason why I have repeatedly called the municipal courts the most important in our state." Id. at 650. He rejoiced at their post-Constitution accomplishments which had brought about legislative enlargement of their jurisdictional power,*fn3 and he said "[t]he manner in which the municipal courts over a period of seven years have exercised their growing powers makes a proud record." Id. at 653. He emphasized outward symbolism as a spur to judicial probity and impartiality and consequent public confidence in the courts:

The wearing of a judicial robe by a judge is important in part because it reminds all concerned of the fact that the judge represents the law on which liberty depends, but -- and this is even more important -- the robe is even more significant as a constant reminder to the judge that he does not have the freedom of the ordinary individual but is himself bound to submerge his personal feelings in the impartial administration of the law. The judicial robe is a constant reminder to the magistrates that they, like all other judges, are subject to the Canons of Judicial Ethics as rules of court. * * * It is not enough that a judge be honest and impartial; it is essential that he have the reputation in his community for being a man of absolute integrity, whose judgment is not and cannot be influenced by other than the proofs introduced before him in court. [ Id. at 653].

Later, Chief Justice Weintraub expressed a similar view as to the importance of the local courts:

[I]n terms of human experiences our magistrates preside in the most important courts in the state. To appreciate that this is so, we need but look at the nature and number of the matters they handle.

* * * [A] very substantial percentage of our citizens are directly involved with our municipal courts, to say nothing of the thousands who appear as witnesses or spectators. For most of them, it is their only contact with the judicial process. The impressions they receive serve to shape their opinion of the judicial system, our laws and law enforcement. We cannot permit that opinion to be anything but one of confidence and respect. [81 N.J.L.J. 597 (1958)].

Chief Justice Weintraub would often repeat this theme. In greeting Municipal Judges at the Eleventh Annual Conference of Magistrates in 1959, he reminded them that they "represent[ed] by far the most productive, the most active part of the judicial system, and * * * in terms of citizen exposure, the most important one"; that "all of us" must have "active concern" with the standing and reputation of the municipal court; that "anything that happens in just a few of the courtrooms casts a shadow upon all of us."

In In re Mattera, 34 N.J. 259, 275 (1961), he stressed:

In many respects the municipal court is the most important in our judicial system. No other court can match its volume of causes. Our municipal courts dispose annually of approximately one and one-half million matters, a number which dwarfs the total proceedings in all other courts of the State. For all practical purposes, the judgments of the municipal court are final. It is there that most citizens have their sole exposure to the judicial process. The respect they have for the judiciary hinges upon that experience. Thus the magistrate has a unique responsibility for the popular image of the entire system.

In another context, but equally relevant, this Court noted in In re Spitalnick, 63 N.J. 429, 431-32 (1973), that:

This Court cannot allow the integrity of the judicial process to be compromised in any way * * *. A community without certainty in the true administration of justice is a community without justice.

Nowhere can the community be more sensitive to the regularities -- and irregularities -- of judicial administration than at the local level.

The same view was expressed during the unfortunately brief tenure of the late Chief Justice Garven. During his last illness his speech to the Judicial Conference of Municipal

Court Judges was read for him by Justice Mark Sullivan, and he reminded those judges that:

You, judges of the municipal courts of this State, represent the first bastion of our judicial system. Thousands of our citizens are exposed to justice in New Jersey through the municipal courts. They are unaware of the activities of any other court. To these people, you are the judicial system. This alone places a heavy burden upon you. [96 N.J.L.J. 1237 (1973) (emphasis added)].

The members of the present Court are equally convinced that the municipal courts, from the standpoint of contact, observation and acceptance by the public, are in a preeminent position for the sustaining of universal respect for the administration of justice. That is why we have persisted, through the Administrative Office of the Courts, in training and orientation, not only of judges but other municipal court personnel. Our rules deal extensively with municipal court practice. R. 7:1 et seq. Seminars are conducted at frequent intervals. A municipal court bulletin issues monthly, discussing recent decisions and procedural reforms. Regular audits of municipal court accounts are filed with and examined by the Administrative Office of the Courts, which office maintains a special municipal court section. Local trial court administrators conduct periodic visitations of municipal courts at the direction of the respective Assignment Judges, who are responsible administratively for the proper functioning of the municipal courts.

For the proper administration of justice and public confidence therein, this Court created the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, pointing out our adoption of the Code of Judicial Conduct (Appendix to Part 1, Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey). We expressed the view that:

While many fundamental guides to the conduct of judges are included, the observance of two provisions would enhance mightily, [we] think, public trust and confidence in our system:

Canon 3(A)(3) provides:

"A judge should be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom he deals in his official capacity, and should require similar conduct of lawyers and of his staff, court officials and others subject to his direction and control."

Canon 3(A)(4) provides:

"A judge should accord to every person who is legally interested in a proceeding, or his lawyer, full right to be heard according to law * * *"

In a free society, the court's influence, acceptance and power alike rest, not only on Constitution and statutory law but upon public confidence in its probity, objectivity and freedom from outside pressure of whatever kind. This applies to all courts, including the hundreds of Municipal Judges who, as Chief Justice Vanderbilt used to say, were those nearest to the people.

It is to guard this reputation and to strengthen this public confidence, not only in the courts but in our profession in general, that the Supreme Court is establishing its Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. This Committee will investigate and consider complaints as to judicial misconduct of whatever kind and report its findings to the Supreme Court for appropriate remedial action. [97 N.J.L.J. 278 (1974)].

It is therefore apparent, despite the many societal changes which have occurred in recent years, that the policy of the Supreme Court continues unaltered in its insistence that all courts within its constitutional and administrative direction shall so comport themselves as to dignify the administration of justice and deserve the confidence and respect of the public.

Such is the purpose of the rule of court (R. 1:18, originally R. 8:13-5(a) (1948)), which subjects all judges, including municipal court judges, to the strictures of the Code of Judicial Conduct: "It shall be the duty of every judge to abide by and to enforce the provisions of * * * the Canons of Judicial Ethics," (now known as the Code of Judicial Conduct). See Pressler, Current New Jersey Court Rules, Comment R. 1:18.

We therefore pass to a brief review of that Code of Judicial Conduct against which to measure respondent's behavior in office.

THE CODE OF JUDICIAL CONDUCT

The Code contains the following significant provisions:

(1) An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should * * * observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independents of the judiciary may be preserved.

(2) A. A judge should respect and comply with the law and should conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

Commentary

Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. He must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. He must therefore accept restrictions on his conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly.

(3) A. (3) A judge should be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom he deals in his official capacity * * *.

Commentary

The duty to hear all proceedings fairly and with patience is not inconsistent with the duty to dispose promptly of the business of the court. Courts can be efficient and business-like while being patient and deliberate.

(3) A. (4) A judge should accord to every person who is legally interested in a proceeding, or his lawyer, full right to be heard according to law, and, except as authorized by law, neither initiate nor consider ex parte or other ...


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