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In re Vasser

Decided: February 2, 1978.

IN THE MATTER OF MARK VASSER, AN ATTORNEY AT LAW


For suspension for six months -- Chief Justice Hughes and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Handler. Opposed -- None.

Per Curiam

This disciplinary proceeding against respondent is before the Court upon the presentment of the Atlantic County Ethics Committee (Ethics Committee), dated August 23, 1977. The proceedings originated upon a complaint filed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (Advisory Committee) at its specific request on December 31, 1975. At that time respondent was a Judge of the Municipal Court of Margate City in Atlantic County. Since the subject matter of the seven-count complaint related to his conduct and activities in that judicial office, disciplinary proceedings were the proper concern of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct. R. 2:15; In re Holder, 74 N.J. 581Page 359} (1977); In re Yengo, 72 N.J. 425 (1977); In re Hardt, 72 N.J. 160 (1977).

After the filing of this complaint respondent interposed an answer which created disputed issues. Thereafter a hearing was held and, on February 17, 1977, the Advisory Committee filed a presentment recommending that a complaint seeking appropriate discipline be issued pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-1 et seq. Before any action was taken upon that presentment, however, it was learned that respondent no longer held his judicial office. Accordingly the case was referred to the Atlantic County Ethics Committee which, as noted previously, undertook proceedings resulting in its presentment to this Court. The record before the County Ethics Committee included the complaint and answer filed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the exhibits and transcript of the hearing before that Committee and its presentment and recommendation. Respondent and his counsel were notified that all evidential materials compiled by the Advisory Committee would constitute a part of the record before the Ethics Committee and were given the opportunity to appear, which they declined.

The Ethics Committee concluded that only the allegations of counts one, four and five of the complaint had been sustained and that with respect to those counts, "respondent's conduct was clearly unethical and unprofessional * * * while a judge and that his conduct was in violation of DR 8-101 (A)(2) and DR 9-101 (C) as an attorney." This determination coincided with the conclusions of the Advisory Committee. We concern ourselves therefore with these particular violations as alleged in the complaint to ascertain whether the record supports the determination of ethical breach and, if so, what discipline appropriately flows therefrom.

The first count of the complaint charged respondent with misconduct in office which was prejudicial to the administration of justice and brought judicial office into disrepute. With respect to this charge, the Advisory Committee found it to be "absolutely certain and a fact" that respondent

communicated his desire to the clerk of the Ventnor City Municipal Court that the trial of his client's assault and battery complaint "should be deferred and not processed in the ordinary course of municipal court business" and that in communicating this expectation, respondent told the court clerk "to 'bury it' or 'lose it' or, perhaps 'postpone the matter for a while until things cool off' or some such similar words." The Advisory Committee determined that respondent communicated improperly with the clerk "to prevent the matter from being disposed of by the Ventnor Municipal Court in a proper fashion" and that he did so because of his known office as municipal court judge in another municipality and his personal acquaintanceship with the clerk of the other municipal court. His reason for doing this, according to the Committee, was respondent's "perceived * * * strategic need to hold the assault and battery case open while [his] client had pending her divorce action against her then-husband and, thus, to be in a position to exert such pressure and leverage which might advance the interests of [his] client in the matrimonial litigation."

The Advisory Committee concluded that this conduct was a patent violation of R. 1:15-1(c), which proscribes the practice of law by a municipal court judge in any criminal matter. Even more pointedly, the Committee observed that respondent acted in a "surreptitious fashion" in that he "took pains to conceal from the judge [of the Ventnor City Municipal Court] * * * the result which he was seeking and, in fact, did obtain." The Committee stated that, wholly apart from the bar of R. 1:15-1(c) against rendering legal services in another municipal court, "the fashion in which respondent proceeded and brought about his desired ends was wholly inimical to the administration of justice."

We entertain not the slightest doubt that the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, as the matter then stood before it, determined properly that respondent had clearly violated R. 1:15-1(c). While a judge of the municipal court, he engaged in the practice of law in a criminal matter when

he obtained a postponement of the trial of the disorderly persons complaint in another municipal court to give his client an advantage in an unrelated civil matter in connection with his private law practice. We also endorse the further conclusion of the Advisory Committee that, apart from the clear violation of R. 1:15-1(c), respondent's conduct was "wholly inimical to the administration of justice." In this respect his conduct offended Canons One and Two of the Code of Judicial Conduct which adjure a judge to "uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary" and to "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities" in order "to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."*fn1

It follows inexorably that this conduct, which was grossly violative of minimal standards of judicial ethics, was, as determined by the Atlantic County Ethics Committee, contrary to the Disciplinary Rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility. We adopt without reservation the well-founded conclusion of the Ethics Committee in this respect.

Respondent's misconduct was not limited to Disciplinary Rules DR 8-101(A)(2) and DR 9-101(C). In his dual capacity as a judge and member of the bar, respondent clearly transgressed DR 1-102(A)(5) by engaging "in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice." ...


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