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In re Coruzzi

Decided: March 20, 1984.

IN THE MATTER OF PETER J. CORUZZI, JUDGE OF THE SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY


On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be removed or otherwise disciplined.

For removal: Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed: None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Wilentz, C.J.

Wilentz

Society invests its leaders with many powers. No power is greater, nor its responsibilities more awesome, than that given a judge. The power to render final judgment is limited only by the law and the judge's conscience. Society gives this power on condition that judges be independent, trusting them and no one else. Respondent sold this power, he sold his judgments, he sold his independence. He not only betrayed his trust, he betrayed New Jersey's tradition of judicial honesty: in the more than 35 years since the creation of our new court system, consisting now of more than 300 judges, only one other judge has been indicted.

This opinion disposes of two matters: the complaint instituted by this Court for removal of Judge Coruzzi, and his challenge to the statutory amendment that enabled us to withhold his pay indefinitely during the removal proceedings, the statute having previously limited that power to 90 days. We hold the statutory amendment valid. We further hold that Judge Coruzzi must be removed from office.

Judge Coruzzi was arrested on November 6, 1981, immediately after having accepted a bribe.*fn1 He received the bribe from a lawyer while the two were driving in the lawyer's car to the courthouse. The lawyer had previously confessed to the bribery conspiracy and had been granted immunity from prosecution

based on his agreement to cooperate. He was "wired" to enable law enforcement personnel to hear the entire conversation between the two as it took place. When Judge Coruzzi got out of the car at the courthouse he was arrested. He had the bribe money ($12,000) in his jacket.*fn2

At the request of the Chief Justice, the Assignment Judge immediately relieved him of all duties. On the next day this Court filed a complaint for his removal and suspended him without pay. N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-3, -5. Pursuant to the removal statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-10, we withheld further proceedings pending the outcome of the criminal action.*fn3

On March 25, 1982, Judge Coruzzi was convicted of four counts of bribery in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:27-2.*fn4 The jury's verdict amounted to a finding that in three separate criminal matters Judge Coruzzi had accepted or agreed to accept bribes; that he agreed in two of them not to impose a custodial sentence and, in the third, to change a custodial sentence to non-custodial.

In two of the cases, he received the money; in the third he solicited the bribe but never received it. The evidence against him was overwhelming. On May 7, 1982, he was given a five-year prison sentence. On appeal the Appellate Division affirmed, State v. Coruzzi, 189 N.J. Super. 273 (1983), and we denied certification. 94 N.J. 531 (1983).

The criminal matter having been concluded, the removal proceedings commenced. A three-judge panel was designated for the purpose of taking evidence in the matter pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-7. The Attorney General prosecuted the removal proceedings in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-4 (and defended the challenge to the constitutionality of the statutory amendment noted above and addressed in detail below). Respondent declined the panel's offer to supply him with counsel and waived his right to appear at the hearing. The evidence before the panel consisted mainly of the indictment, the judgment of conviction, and documents evidencing respondent's voluntary waiver of counsel and right to attend the hearing. The panel found that the conviction conclusively established Judge Coruzzi's guilt and, given the facts alleged and the crime charged, mandated his removal from office.

At respondent's request, we then appointed counsel on his behalf. The matter (along with the dispute concerning his pay) has now been thoroughly briefed and argued by Judge Coruzzi's counsel and by the Attorney General.

During the course of the criminal proceedings, Judge Coruzzi brought a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey seeking a declaration that L. 1981, c. 522, the statutory amendment authorizing the indefinite withholding of pay during removal proceedings, was unconstitutional. The District Court ruled the statute constitutional and granted the State's motion for summary judgment. Coruzzi v. New Jersey, No. 82-535 (May 13, 1982). On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, but on different grounds. It held that abstention by the federal courts was appropriate since the

questions presented implicated important state issues and were the subject of an ongoing state judicial proceeding. Coruzzi v. New Jersey, 705 F.2d 688, 690-91 (3d Cir.1983). It assumed correctly that Judge Coruzzi could obtain a prompt adjudication of the federal constitutional issues through a motion made directly to this Court to modify our prior order indefinitely withholding his pay. Id. at 691. Such a motion has been made and, as noted, was briefed and argued along with the removal issue.

The Removal Proceedings

We hold that a judge who accepts a bribe must be removed from office. There can be no exceptions whatsoever.

One might argue that there might conceivably be some bribery case somewhere with mitigating circumstances sufficient to justify discipline other than removal. That case will have to be argued elsewhere. In New Jersey nothing other than removal will do, no matter what the circumstances.*fn5

Respondent contends that the removal statute requires the Supreme Court (or the three-judge panel) to hear the underlying evidence that constitutes the cause for removal, that reliance on a criminal conviction is impermissible. He further contends that this Court should disqualify itself because it prejudged his guilt.

We know of no doctrine defining what effect must be given in these removal proceedings to the judge's bribery conviction. We are not barred by constitutional law from according it full collateral estoppel consequences. All of the conditions of that doctrine are present (the issues were in fact litigated, the burden of proof is the same, the parties, essentially, are identical). The constitutional restraint, in New Jersey, inhibits the use of collateral estoppel only in subsequent criminal proceedings. State v. Ingenito, 87 N.J. 204, 216-17 (1981). The proceedings here are not criminal. Board of Chosen Freeholders v. Conda, 164 N.J. Super. 386, 391 (Law Div.1971); accord, e.g., McComb v. Commission on Judicial Performance, 138 Cal.Rptr. 459, 463-65, 564 P. 2d 1 (Cal.Spec.Trib.1977).

Nor are we required to accord collateral estoppel effect to the bribery conviction and the factual determination upon which it was based. Collateral estoppel is not mandated by constitution or statute. Rather it is a doctrine designed to accomplish various goals, a rule not to be applied if there are sufficient countervailing interests. Plainfield v. Public Service Elec. & Gas Co., 82 N.J. 245, 258-59 (1980).

Given the unique nature of these proceedings and their unequalled importance, collateral estoppel's application must depend completely on its consistency with the goals of removal proceedings. In New Jersey, where these proceedings are constitutionally based, and where the Constitution imposes responsibility on the Legislature for both their substance and ...


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