On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.
Before Judges Dreier, Villanueva and Braithwaite.
The opinion of the court was delivered by DREIER, P.J.A.D.
Defendant Francis J. Burla and the Immaculate Conception Church appeal on leave granted from the order of the trial Judge sua sponte that, inter alia, set aside the jury's liability verdict that exonerated them of liability and directed a new trial in these consolidated cases. The Judge further determined that he should not have permitted one party, a priest, to appear in clerical garb (a dark suit and Roman collar) during the trial. This case grew out of a four-car collision in which the jury apportioned liability: zero percent to plaintiff, Yefim Ryslik, the driver of the first car; seventy percent to Robert W. Krass, the driver of the second car; thirty percent to Celestine Fields, the driver of the third car; and zero percent to Francis J. Burla, the driver of the fourth car, owned by the church. The Judge set aside the jury's liability apportionment among the defendants only, preserving the finding that plaintiff was not negligent.
Defendant Burla, a Roman Catholic priest, testified that he was travelling forty to forty-five miles per hour when the car ahead of him stopped suddenly, at which time he hit his brakes and then realized that he was not going to stop in time. He hit the car in front of him. At his deposition, he said that he "plowed into" the Fields vehicle, but testified at trial that it was "not much of a jolt." The only damage to the rear of the third car was a broken right taillight, and the only damage to the front of Burla's car was a damaged grill. The damage to the front of the Fields car, however, was extensive, as was the damage to the rear of the Krass vehicle. According to Krass, although not crushed like an accordion, his car's damage was "extreme." It looked "like it was smashed from the front and smashed from behind." According to Fields, she could not assess her front-end damage as her car was not examined by her after the accident, but it was "attached" to the car in front. The force of the impact with the Krass vehicle was sufficient to throw Ms. Fields forward so that her head broke the front windshield. According to plaintiff, the second and third cars looked like "accordions," and Krass just after the accident allegedly stated: "Oh, my God, this is like my fault."
Under the second and third drivers' theory of how the accident happened, the second and third cars had stopped short of causing a collision, but when Father Burla hit the third car, he forced it into the second car, and, in turn, that car hit the first. Under the scenario advanced by defendant Burla, the second car hit the first, the third hit the second and only then did the fourth car hit those already involved in the accident. The plaintiff driver testified that there were three jolts, which is consistent with Father Burla's version of the accident. Defendants Burla and the church contend that (1) there should be no restriction on his wearing of a Roman collar, (2) the jury verdict had sufficient support in the record to be reinstated, and (3) there was no basis for the trial Judge to conclude that the jury had been prejudiced by knowledge that defendant Burla is a priest. We will combine defendants' first and third issues for our Discussion.
The first issue in this case relates to the Judge's principal ground for granting a new trial. The trial Judge determined that as Father Burla was described as a priest and was wearing his Roman collar when he testified, this was too prejudicial to the other parties. He therefore ordered a new trial at which there was to be no mention that Father Burla was a priest, and he would be directed to wear nonclerical garb. If he refused to comply, his testimony at the first trial would be read to the jury.
We disagree with this proposition. We acknowledge that "[a] trial Judge has the ultimate responsibility to control the trial in the courtroom and is given wide discretion to do so." Horn v. Village Supermarkets, Inc., 260 N.J. Super. 165, 175, 615 A.2d 663 (App. Div. 1992), certif. denied, 133 N.J. 435 (1993). But this responsibility must be exercised reasonably and within constitutional bounds. If a party is a member of the armed services, a firefighter, or a priest, when appearing in court he or she should be entitled to dress in a manner ordinary to him or her. The Judge should appropriately charge, as the Judge did here, that no undue weight should be given to the testimony of the particular witness by reason of a profession.*fn1 But a witness should not be artificially dressed by direction of the court.
Whether a trial court has the discretion to prevent a party from appearing in religious attire is a novel issue in New Jersey case law. We first note a February 11, 1991 memorandum from Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz to the assignment Judges, entitled "Courtroom Decorum and Respect for Courtrooms." The memo contained a directive to the trial Judges not to restrict litigants from dressing as they choose. The memo stated, in pertinent part:
I do not believe we should try to influence how litigants or witnesses dress, absent something that approaches the obscene. I believe the fact finder, be it the jury or the Judge, should see the litigant or witness as that person wishes to appear and reach whatever Conclusions flow from that 'fact.' If a worker believes that he or she should dress the way he or she always does, I would not stop that; nor would I try to prevent that worker from dressing in a way he or she never does. I realize though this may not be in accord with present practice and welcome your views on it.
The closest New Jersey case deals with a trial Judge's restriction of an attorney's attire in the courtroom. In Matter of De Carlo, 141 N.J. Super. 42, 357 A.2d 273 (App. Div. 1976), defendant, a female attorney, was held in contempt of court for disobeying the trial court's order that she dress as he directed. The Judge objected to the fact that she wore a sweater and slacks in court. This court reversed the conviction, concluding that the record did not support a contempt finding. We did not determine whether the Judge was within his power to restrict defendant's manner of dress, Id. at 46-47, but we did state that defendant's attire was not the type to be "fairly labeled disruptive, distractive or depreciative of the solemnity of the judicial process. . . ." Id. at 47.
The issue, however, has appeared elsewhere in three settings: (1) whether there may be religious dress restrictions on attorneys; (2) whether a party or witness may dress, not as a member of the clergy, but in a distinctive manner required by the person's religion, and (3) the precise issue before us, i.e., whether a priest or minister may wear clerical attire when appearing as a party or witness. While New York appears to be the jurisdiction with the most reported cases, the issue has also been discussed elsewhere.
A priest serving as an attorney may be required to wear non-clerical garb, at least where the dictates of his or her religion will not be violated. In La Rocca v. Lane, 77 Misc. 2d 123, 353 N.Y.S.2d 867, 872 (Sup. Ct. 1974), rev'd on other grounds, 47 A.D.2d 243, 366 N.Y.S.2d 456, 462 (2d Dept.) aff'd, 37 N.Y.2d 575, 376 N.Y.S.2d 93, 338 N.E.2d 606 (1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 968, 96 S. Ct. 1464, 47 L. Ed. 2d 734 (1976), the trial court held that the attorney, who was also a priest, could not wear his ...