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Matter of Pepe

June 30, 1995


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

Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in this Per Curiam opinion.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

IN THE MATTER OF STEPHEN PEPE, An Attorney at Law (D-111-94)

Argued May 1, 1995 -- Decided June 30, 1995


An attorney-ethics complaint was filed against Stephen Pepe, a former Judge of the Superior Court. The complaint was based on a presentment filed by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct of the Supreme Court of New Jersey (ACJC), which recommended the Court initiate proceedings to remove Pepe from judicial office. The Court removed Pepe as a Judge of the Superior Court and barred him from holding any future judicial office.

The ethics complaint charged Pepe as an attorney with violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in that he committed a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, and he engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of Justice.

The ACJC presentment provides the relevant facts. Pepe and a confidential informant for the Division of Criminal Justice had known each other for about 16 years. In 1986, the informant lived with Pepe for two weeks, during which time the two smoked marijuana on many occasions each day. The informant later moved out of the area. Pepe did not see the informant between 1987 and 1990. In May 1990, while fishing with his son, Pepe saw the informant. Pepe told the informant that he was now a Superior Court Judge in Ocean County. The informant came to Pepe's judicial chambers on June 25, 1990, seeking Pepe's assistance in securing employment. Pepe introduced the informant to a litigant who was waiting in Pepe's chambers. The litigant had known Pepe for many years. The litigant and the informant discussed job possibilities and made arrangements to meet the following day.

On the evening of June 26, 1990, Pepe went to the informant's apartment where he, the informant, and the informant's wife smoked marijuana provided by Pepe. The informant also suggested that he and Pepe in the near future have a party with some women where they would all smoke marijuana.

The informant contacted law enforcement authorities and eventually was put in touch with the Division of Criminal Justice. He agreed to serve as a confidential informant and to have all conversations between he and Pepe recorded. The informant asked that, in return, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration be notified of his cooperation. Thereafter, the informant taped several conversations wherein Pepe discussed the possibility of future meetings to smoke marijuana.

The ACJC found that Pepe had used marijuana in the company of the informant and the informant's wife on June 26, 1990, and that he supplied the drug used on that date. The ACJC also found that Pepe "improperly lent the prestige of his office to advance the private interests of the informant" when he arranged an introduction with a litigant in a matter before him, for the purpose of getting the informant a job.

In the ethics proceedings, the special master found that Pepe's conduct was unethical and recommended a public reprimand. In its review, the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) noted that: Pepe engaged in unethical conduct on several occasions; his misconduct was not limited to mere personal use of marijuana; he provided the illegal substance to third parties when he was a member of the bench and bar; he engaged in not only past illegal conduct, but also planned, from his chambers, to engage in future illegal conduct; and, he committed this misconduct while a Judge of the Superior Court. In mitigation, the DRB considered Pepe's cooperation with the disciplinary authorities, his past and continuing unblemished career, and the indignation and extreme public and professional humiliation he had suffered. A majority of the DRB recommended a public reprimand; one member would have imposed a three-month suspension; and two members would have imposed a private reprimand.

HELD: Stephen A. Pepe is suspended from the practice of law for three months, effective July 24, 1995.

1. Determinations made in judicial-removal proceedings are conclusive and binding in subsequent attorney-disciplinary proceedings. Thus, the ACJC's findings, substantially accepted by this Court in the removal proceedings, are binding in these ethics proceedings. The only issue to be determined is the appropriate measure of discipline. (p. 8)

2. Attorneys who occupy positions of public trust are held to higher ethical standards. A criminal conviction is conclusive evidence of an attorney's guilt in an ethical proceeding. That same principle applies in respect of the determination or admission of judicial misconduct for which discipline has been imposed. (p. 9)

3. Transgressions by attorneys that bespeak indifference to the law and the legal system destroy public confidence in the integrity of the bar. Discipline is warranted even if the conduct does not directly implicate the practice of law or damage the client's interests. (pp. 9-10)

4. Pepe's involvement with the marijuana was not innocuous. He was guilty of sharing or distributing marijuana; he used it on more than one occasion; he conspired to continue to use marijuana and involve others in its use; and he had engaged in the use and possession of marijuana in the past. Thus, in terms of gravity, Pepe's conduct is comparable to those cases in which this Court has consistently imposed a three-month suspension. Moreover, Pepe committed these drug offenses while he was a Judge and illicit activity occurred in the court house. Such conduct directly compromises the judiciary as an institution. (pp. 10-12)

5. The Court acknowledges Pepe's good record and is aware of Pepe's painful embarrassment and deep remorse. Nonetheless, contrition and mortification alone cannot repair and restore public confidence in the profession. Only ...

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