Governor Florio reappointed the Judge with tenure in May, 1993.
On September 22, 1992 Judge Hunter presided over his first civil trial in the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. At the beginning of the trial, the judge read preliminary instructions to the jury indicating that the trial would end at 4:00 each day.
At approximately 3:45 p.m., the plaintiff called its second witness, Heidi Sammarco. The witness had throat cancer and was scheduled to undergo surgery on September 24th. She was unable to speak but could communicate by writing. When the plaintiff called Ms. Sammarco, Judge Hunter reminded counsel that the proceedings would conclude at 4:00. Judge Hunter also indicated that if the defense did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness, he would strike her testimony.
At 4:00 p.m., counsel for the plaintiff indicated that he was on his last question and requested that Judge Hunter extend the session because the witness would be unable to return the next day. The attorney indicated that Ms. Sammarco lived in Pennsylvania, was in ill-health, and would be undergoing surgery in two days. Defense counsel agreed to extend the session and indicated that he expected his cross-examination to last no more than 10 minutes. Judge Hunter refused. Plaintiff's counsel moved for a mistrial which Judge Hunter denied.
On September 23, 1992 Heidi Sammarco's father, Jack Sammarco, sent a letter complaining about Judge Hunter's conduct to Superior Court Assignment Judge Edward Beglin. The letter alleged that Judge Hunter was insensitive to his daughter's medical condition. The letter was referred to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ("ACJC or Committee").
B. The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct
The New Jersey Constitution grants the Supreme Court the authority to remove Superior Court Judges "in such manner as shall be provided by law." N.J. Const. Art. 6, § 6, P 4 (amended 1978). The Supreme Court also has "jurisdiction over the admission to the practice of law and the discipline of persons admitted." Id. at Art. 6, § 2, P 3.
In 1970, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Judicial Removal Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-1 et seq.
to "implement removal procedures as authorized generally under the Constitution." Matter of Yaccarino, 101 N.J. 342, 350, 502 A.2d 3 (1985). The Act leaves "much to the Supreme Court's discretion, both by implication--by failing to define proceedings in more detailed and restrictive terms--and explicitly--by providing that 'except as otherwise provided in this [act], proceedings shall be governed by the rules of the Supreme Court.'" In re Coruzzi, 95 N.J. 557, 570, 472 A.2d 546 (1984) (quoting N.J.S.A. 2B:2A-8), appeal dismissed, 469 U.S. 802, 83 L. Ed. 2d 8, 105 S. Ct. 56 (1984).
"The Act contemplated authority in th[e New Jersey Supreme] Court to effectuate fully the power to be exercised in this area of judicial discipline." Yaccarino, 101 N.J. at 350. In order to utilize this power, the New Jersey Supreme Court has promulgated rules regarding the discipline of judges.
New Jersey Court Rule ("Rule") 2:15-1 creates the ACJC "in order to implement N.J.S. 2A:1B-10, [currently 2B:2A-10] providing for suspension prior to a hearing, and to assist otherwise in fulfilling the administrative responsibilities of the Court." Rule 2:15-1. The Committee consists of nine members. At least two of the members must be retired Justices or Judges of the New Jersey Supreme Court or Superior Court. At least three of the members are members of the Bar, and no more than four members are laypersons.
Essentially, the function of the ACJC is to investigate complaints of judicial misconduct, and either dismiss them or institute formal proceedings against the judge. After conducting a hearing, the ACJC makes a recommendation to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding its findings and suggests appropriate disciplinary action, if necessary. The New Jersey Supreme Court then conducts its own review of the record, and makes the final decision regarding discipline.
The disciplinary procedure consists of several distinct steps. First, pursuant to Rule 2:15-8(a), the Committee must conduct a "preliminary investigation" upon receipt of
a written statement or criticism or complaint, not obviously unfounded or frivolous, . . . alleging facts indicating that a judge of the Superior Court . . . is guilty of: (1) misconduct in office, (2) willful failure to perform judicial duties, (3) incompetence, (4) habitual intemperance, (5) engagement in partisan politics, (6) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office in disrepute, (7) may be suffering from a mental or physical disability which is disabling to the judge and may continue to disable the judge indefinitely or permanently from the performance of judicial duties.
If the Committee decides not to proceed after the preliminary investigation, it notifies the complainant. It also notifies the judge, if the judge is aware of the complaint.
At the end of the preliminary investigation stage, the ACJC has several options. The Committee may (1) dismiss the complaint and notify the parties; (2) "if the investigation reveals some departures by the Judge from common standards of judicial propriety, such as discourtesy, rudeness, disparagement of witnesses or attorneys, and the like, or other conduct or demeanor which would reflect unfavorably upon the administration of justice if persisted in or were to become habitual or more substantial in character, the Committee may request the Judge to appear at a time and place designated for an informal discussion of the matter," after which the Committee may dismiss the Complaint; or (3) the Committee can proceed with the investigation and require the complainant to file a verified complaint if necessary. Rule 2:15-10, 2:15-11.
If the Committee proceeds with the investigation, it shall "require the complainant to file a verified complaint against the Judge," unless it is unnecessary under the circumstances. Rule 2:15-10. The Committee must "notify the Judge of the nature of the charge," the identity of the complaining party, and "the alleged facts on which the charge is based." Id. The Committee must also indicate that the "Judge has the opportunity to present within such reasonable time as the Committee shall fix, such matters as the Judge may choose with respect to [the complaint], including, on the Judge's request, the right to appear before the Committee, on notice to the complaining party, and to make such statement under oath as the Judge deems appropriate." Rule 2:15-10.
If the Committee concludes from the preliminary investigation "that the circumstances, if established at a plenary hearing, may call for censure, suspension, or removal of the Judge, and that formal proceedings to that end should be instituted, the Committee shall promptly file a copy of the recommendation and the record of the Committee certified as such by its Secretary with the Clerk of the Supreme Court." Rule 2:15-12. The Committee must notify the Judge. The Judge may move in writing before the Supreme Court within 15 days of receipt of the notice for an order denying the Committee's recommendation to institute formal proceedings. 2:15-13.
The Rules explicitly provide a method for handling constitutional challenges. A judge may raise constitutional challenges to the proceedings upon receiving notice under Rules 2:15-9, 2:15-10, or 2:15-11. Rule 2:15-19 provides that the challenges "shall be preserved pending Supreme Court review of the matter on the merits."
The Rules also impose a duty on judicial personnel to cooperate with the Committee. Rule 2:15-7 provides that "Officials, attaches, clerks, and employees of the Courts of the State shall cooperate with and give reasonable assistance and information to the Committee and any authorized representative thereof, in connection with any investigations or proceedings within the jurisdiction of the Committee."
C. The ACJC's Investigation of the Sammarco Complaint
On September 29, 1993, approximately one year after Mr. Sammarco wrote to Judge Beglin regarding Judge Hunter's conduct, counsel for the ACJC, Patrick Monahan, Jr., wrote to Judge Hunter. He enclosed a copy of Mr. Sammarco's letter and asked Judge Hunter to "comment on the appropriateness of [his] refusal to permit Ms. Sammarco to complete her testimony that day in view of her illness and physical condition." This initial letter provoked an exchange of correspondence comparable to a discovery dispute before a federal magistrate.
Rather than providing an explanation of his conduct, Judge Hunter responded by letter dated October 4, 1993 "formally requesting copies of the complete file in possession of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct." In response to this request, the ACJC forwarded its file to Judge Hunter on November 22, 1993.
Not content with this information, Judge Hunter wrote to the ACJC on December 3, 1993 requesting additional information from the ACJC file. He indicated that "what the [ACJC] represented as a complete file [was] noticeably lacking in certain information." At the time, Judge Hunter was aware of a letter written by Richard Krueger, the attorney who called Ms. Sammarco to testify, to Judge Beglin indicating that Mr. Sammarco's letter was "not entirely accurate." This letter was not included in the ACJC's file. Judge Hunter did have a copy of the letter which he forwarded to the ACJC.
The Judge stated that he needed the complete file in order "to review all the evidence and materials the Committee had considered and likewise to determine whether there was sufficient credible evidence which had satisfied a definitive, unbiased standard, and based thereon whether the Committee had justifiably warranted a preliminary investigation."
Responding to this letter on December 8, 1993, Mr. Monahan informed Judge Hunter that the ACJC had already provided him with all of the information received in the preliminary investigation. He noted that the Committee did not provide Judge Hunter with "copies of internal memoranda or working documents, correspondence to the complainant or to others to obtain information." Mr. Monahan acknowledged that the Committee did not previously have the Krueger letter and indicated that he would place it in the Committee's file.
Mr. Monahan's letter also stated that "the Committee is disturbed by the confrontational tone of your letter of December 3, especially in view of Rule 1:18 and the duty of cooperation set forth in Rule 2:15-7. The letter was not responsive to the Committee's request for your comments, as conveyed by my letter of September 29, 1993, and the Committee would appreciate your response."
Rather than provide an explanation of his conduct as again requested by Mr. Monahan, Judge Hunter on December 16, 1993 responded that he was entitled to discovery and indicated that if the Committee acted without providing him with discovery, it would constitute a violation of his federal and state constitutional rights and a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
On January 14, 1994 counsel for the Committee wrote to Judge Hunter again advising him that he had already received everything in the Committee's file. The letter also indicated that the ACJC sought Judge Hunter's comments as part of its preliminary investigation and that he could appear before the Committee to present an informal statement on February 9, 1994 if he wished to do so. The letter asked Judge Hunter to submit his written comments and to inform the Committee whether he would appear by February 4, 1994.
Judge Hunter responded on January 31, 1994 that "the Committee's refusal to honor my demand for discovery is highly prejudicial and prohibits my written comments and appearance." Judge Hunter then stated that "Mr. Sammarco's complaint is completely orchestrated and groundless." He concluded with the following statement:
I have a clear, distinct and personal appreciation of that now-popularized phrase "high-tech lynching," which was coined by United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearing. Law and justice in the United States have come a long way since the time when the ideology of white supremacists was manifested through the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, which brutalized and lynched Afro-Americans. However, the question is now raised, "Just how far?" Specifically, fundamental fairness and justice is subverted when these basic virtues are submerged in an intellectual debate over rule interpretations and a rush to judgment.
The receipt of discovery prior to submitting my written comments and/or appearance would have been most revealing for all parties. I contend that discovery will disclose concealed motives, hidden agendas and personal racial bias, culminating in an abuse of high professional authority and disparate treatment. I further contend that false impressions have been made to the Committee so as to make it the legitimate vehicle to discredit me and to disenfranchise my stature.