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Matter of Santini

Decided: November 1, 1991.


On an order to show cause why respondent should not be publicly reprimanded or otherwise disciplined.

For reprimandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- None.

Per Curiam

This proceeding against respondent, Dominick C. Santini, a municipal court judge, arises out of a complaint filed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC). The ACJC found that respondent had intervened on behalf of a private

client in a matter pending before another municipal court. Based on our independent review of the record, we concur in the ACJC's determinations that respondent violated the standards of judicial conduct. Respondent's prior record, both as a municipal court judge and as an attorney, is unblemished. He recognizes his error and requests that the reprimand be private. Because of the nature of the violation and its effect on the public interest, however, we conclude that the reprimand must be public.


As found by the ACJC, the relevant facts are:

Since 1987 [respondent] has been the Municipal Court Judge of both Knowlton Township and Alpha Borough, Warren County. In the early 1980's, Respondent began to represent Jerry Whitehead, who had a variety of business interests in White Township, Warren County.

On April 21 or 22, 1990, Whitehead informed Respondent that he had received a summons alleging zoning violations and was scheduled to appear in the White Township Municipal Court on April 25, 1990. Respondent said that as a judge he could not appear on Whitehead's behalf and Whitehead asked him to find another attorney to represent him.

During the late morning or early afternoon of April 24, Respondent called Laurel Napolitani, White Township Municipal Court Clerk, at the White Township Municipal Court and asked if she was familiar with the Whitehead matter. She said she was, and Respondent asked her to explain what it was about. She told him the parts of the ordinance that had allegedly been violated. Respondent then said that he could not become personally involved in the case because of his judicial position but would get Whitehead an attorney. Napolitani asked who it would be, and Respondent said Brian Smith. Napolitani reminded Respondent that it would be necessary for Whitehead to appear unless she received a telephone call or a letter from an attorney representing Whitehead before the court session of April 25. Napolitani emphasized that if the court did not hear from an attorney, Whitehead would have to appear. In that event the charge would be read, Whitehead would be read his rights, and the matter would be rescheduled.

Respondent testified that he had tried to contact John Cornish to have Cornish represent Whitehead but that he and Cornish kept missing each other. Respondent also testified that he told Napolitani of his inability to reach Cornish and advised her he would ask Brian Smith to handle the case if necessary. It is apparent that Respondent misunderstood Napolitani.

After his conversation with Napolitani, Respondent telephoned Robert Wilson, White Township Zoning Officer, who had filed the complaint against Whitehead. Respondent told Wilson that he represented Jerry Whitehead, inquired as to the nature of the charges against him, and asked if Wilson could speak to Whitehead to resolve the matter outside court. Wilson explained the nature of the charges and told Respondent that he had previously spoken to Whitehead and that he had to resort to filing charges because Whitehead would not comply with zoning regulations. Respondent then asked Wilson for an adjournment, but Wilson replied that he did not have the power to grant one. During this conversation, Wilson knew that Respondent was a municipal court judge.

Neither Whitehead nor an attorney appeared on April 25, 1990. Whitehead was arrested that evening on a bench warrant ordered by Judge Houston and was immediately released when he posted bail. When Respondent came home that night, his son informed him of a telephone message to the effect that Jerry Whitehead had been arrested. Respondent called Laurel Napolitani at her home at about 9:30 p.m. and remonstrated with her for taking this action after he had informed her of his personal interest in the matter. Napolitani pointed out that it was Judge Houston who had ordered the arrest, not her. She reminded Respondent that he was out of order because "being a judge he shouldn't have been calling me." About ten minutes later, Respondent called Napolitani again to obtain Judge Houston's home telephone number. He then called Judge Houston at home and asked why Houston had issued the bench warrant. Houston replied that he did not know.

Houston subsequently reviewed the entire affair with Napolitani. When the case came before him in June, Judge Houston recused himself. As he testified before the Committee, it was clear to him that under our rules a judge should not ...

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