On an order to show cause why respondent should not be publicly reprimanded or otherwise disciplined.
Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in this opinion.
This is a disciplinary case that involves a judge of the municipal court. On September 10, 1990, a resident of Edison Township forwarded a letter of complaint to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) with regard to several instances of conduct by respondent, Robert Blackman, a judge of the Municipal Court of that community. On October 17, 1990, the ACJC informed respondent that the matter would be discussed by the ACJC in an informal conference.
On November 14, 1990, the ACJC held an informal conference with respondent and his attorney to review the allegations. These referred to respondent's attendance at a social event hosted by a person recently convicted of a crime, and the representation by respondent's law partner of the Edison Chief of Police, a former client of respondent, in a private real estate matter. Following this conference, the ACJC, in a letter dated January 29, 1991, set forth its findings of fact and conclusions, namely, that the conduct of respondent violated the standards governing judicial conduct and warranted a private reprimand.
On February 27, 1991, this Court, on its own motion, issued an order to show cause requiring respondent to show why a public reprimand or other discipline should not be imposed based on the conduct that had been the subject of the ACJC proceedings. The parties do not suggest that the informality of the hearing below renders the record unreliable for purposes of this Court's disciplinary determination. The Court has received briefs and heard oral argument. Based on our independent review of the record, we concur in the ACJC's determinations that respondent violated the standards of judicial conduct in both instances. However, we modify its recommendations with respect to appropriate discipline.
In May 1990, Thomas Robert Heroy, former purchasing agent for Edison Township, entered a guilty plea to federal
racketeering charges. He received a two-and-one-half year prison term. His sentence was scheduled to begin on September 4, 1990. On September 2, 1990, respondent attended an annual Labor Day picnic at Heroy's mother's home in Edison. Heroy and respondent had been close friends for eighteen years and respondent had attended Heroy's and his mother's Labor Day picnics for "many years. " Although respondent characterized the picnic as "an entirely private affair," it was attended by approximately 150 to 200 people, including several attorneys, officials from various municipalities, one chief of police, and a former senior officer of the New Jersey State Police. The party, and respondent's attendance, were widely publicized in local papers.
Respondent explained his decision to attend this party as follows:
I said that Mr. Heroy's been my friend for 18 years. Mr. Heroy did something wrong. He admitted his wrongdoing and he's paying the price, the price being his freedom. That [neither] . . . makes him . . . a leper nor does it make him a [pariah], it makes him a man who made a mistake. If you know the man, you would understand that there are extraordinarily good qualities in the man also. He was my friend, I went to a backyard picnic, I do not [consort] with criminals, I don't . . . I don't condone what he did, I am stunned by what he did. I could not believe that this man of this character that I've known could do such a thing as to take bribes but that doesn't totally turn in my mind the good qualities in the man.
There was no celebration of his going to jail, that's totally misconstrued and misquoted in the papers that this was a celebration for him going to jail. If anything, it was a wake in that sense.
The ACJC disagreed with respondent's assessment of the event:
What you overlooked, and what we tried to emphasize to you at the hearing was that you created an appearance of impropriety by attending an event that was hosted by a convicted felon.
Your initial responses to our questions at the informal conference raised considerable doubt that, even after the negative publicity surrounding your attendance at the barbecue, you did not yet understand the limitations the judicial office imposes on your social activities. There is still serious doubt within the Committee whether you recognize that your mistake ...