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HUNTER v. SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

August 23, 1996

HONORABLE MAC D. HUNTER, Plaintiff,
v.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BASSLER

 BASSLER, DISTRICT JUDGE:

 This case arises out of the Supreme Court of New Jersey's July 6, 1995 private reprimand of Judge Mac D. Hunter of the Superior Court of New Jersey. The Supreme Court reprimanded the Judge for his refusal to cooperate with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct in its investigation of a complaint against him. The Supreme Court dismissed the underlying complaint which alleged that the judge had abrogated his duties by refusing to extend the court session beyond 4:00 in order to allow a witness with special medical needs to complete her testimony. The Court noted, however, that the judge's refusal to allow the testimony to continue was "an abuse of discretion that borders on judicial misconduct."

 On February 26, 1996 Judge Hunter filed a three count complaint in the United States District Court naming as defendants the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Honorable Robert N. Wilentz *fn1" , former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ("ACJC"), and Honorable Sidney M. Schreiber, Chairperson of the ACJC. The Complaint alleges that the defendants violated Judge Hunter's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3).

 The First Count contends that the defendants violated Judge Hunter's rights under the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In this Count, Judge Hunter asks this Court to vacate and rescind the letter of private reprimand, strike the decision, and permanently enjoin the defendants from implementing the disciplinary rules to discipline plaintiff.

 Count Two asserts that the New Jersey court rules that establish the procedure for discipline of judges, Rules 2:15-1 et seq., are unconstitutional. Judge Hunter contends that the Rules violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. At oral argument, however, counsel for Judge Hunter withdrew the equal protection challenge. Count Two requests declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the defendants from applying the rules to future complaints against judges in the absence of certain due process protections.

 Count Three contends that the private reprimand violated the disciplinary rules because the rules did not obligate Judge Hunter to make a statement to the Committee. Count Three also contends that the discipline imposed for his conduct towards the Committee was a violation of his First Amendment rights because it was based on statements he made to the Committee. In addition, Count Three alleges that "the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court of New Jersey knowingly acted unconstitutionally, with vindictive motives, in bad faith, with the purpose to harass him, and created institutional bias when they had predetermined to unconditionally preclude and refuse plaintiff's timely request for a post-deprivation review hearing, the right to submit legal briefs on his constitutional claims, and oral argument," thereby depriving plaintiff of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

 The defendants move to dismiss all counts. They assert that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and the Eleventh Amendment preclude this Court from exercising jurisdiction. Furthermore, they argue that absolute judicial immunity bars plaintiff's claims, and that the Complaint fails to state a cause of action for which relief can be granted. For the following reasons, the defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

 I. BACKGROUND

 The following recitation of facts is based on documents that Judge Hunter appended to the Complaint. The documents include the entire record of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and further communications between the Supreme Court and Judge Hunter. The Court may properly consider these documents in the motion to dismiss because "the Complaint is deemed to include any written instrument attached to it as an exhibit or any statements of documents incorporated in it by reference." Cortec Industries, Inc. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 47 (2d Cir. 1991) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 960, 118 L. Ed. 2d 208, 112 S. Ct. 1561 (1992). See also Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196-97 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1042, 126 L. Ed. 2d 655, 114 S. Ct. 687 (1994).

 A. The Underlying Grievance

 Judge Hunter has served on the Superior Court of New Jersey since former Governor Kean appointed him in May, 1986. Former 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. *fn2" 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

 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.
 
You are hereby noticed that upon the Committee's presentation of this matter to the Supreme Court, I shall petition the Governor and Attorney General, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:17A-13, to provide the necessary appropriation to obtain private counsel.

 On March 7, 1994, the Committee gave up on its efforts to have the Judge respond to the Sammarco letter and, not surprisingly, advised Judge Hunter that it would proceed with the preliminary investigation without his assistance.

 On July 26, 1994, the Committee filed a two count Formal Complaint *fn3" against Judge Hunter. The First Count charged Judge Hunter with failing to cooperate with the Committee, specifically:

 
By refusing to cooperate with the Committee's valid request for his comments, Respondent violated Rule 1:18 which makes it the duty of every judge to abide by and to enforce the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Code of Judicial Conduct"; Rule 2:15-7 which requires judges to "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;" wilfully failed to perform his judicial duties in violation of Rule 2:15-8(a)(2); and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, in violation of Rule 2:15-8(a)(6).

 The First Count also alleged that "by the observations contained in his correspondence to the Committee, particularly in his letter of January 31, 1994, Respondent has manifested a lack of judgment and has provided sufficient cause to question his stability. See Rule 2:15-8(a)(7)."

 The Second Count related to Judge Hunter's conduct towards Heidi Sammarco. The Second Count alleged that:

 On September 13, 1994 counsel for Judge Hunter, William M. Kuntzler, Esq., filed an "Answer and Demurrer and/or Motion to Dismiss" ("Answer"). The Answer asserted that the Judge's conduct both towards Ms. Sammarco and the Committee was appropriate. Specifically, the document stated that his "alleged refusal to cooperate with the Committee resulted from his reasonable suspicion that the commencement of an investigation against a sitting judge for such a flimsy reason as the comments set forth in Mr. Sammarco's letter . . . raise suspicions in a black person's mind that there was more to the matter than meets the eye, namely that racism on someone's part in the process may have been involved." The Answer did not contain any constitutional challenges to the proceedings.

 On December 13, 1994, the Committee held a formal evidentiary hearing on the charges against Judge Hunter. Judge Hunter appeared at that hearing represented by Mr. Kuntzler, who made a statement on the Judge's behalf. Judge Hunter chose not to make a statement himself or to call any witnesses. He did, however, make himself available for questions from the Committee. During the testimony, Judge Hunter suggested that he perceived Mr. Sammarco as a white supremacist.

 On May 26, 1995, the Committee issued its Report to the Supreme Court and transferred the record to the Court. The Committee found that Judge Hunter had breached his duties with respect to both counts of the Complaint. With respect to Count One, the Committee recommended that Judge Hunter be more flexible. With respect to Count Two, the Committee was evenly divided on whether Judge Hunter should receive a private or a public reprimand for his conduct towards the Committee. *fn4"

 On June 1, 1995, Mr. Kuntzler, acknowledging receipt of the Committee's report, wrote to the Clerk of the Supreme Court. Mr. Kuntzler argued that the proceeding must be dismissed in light of the fact that six months had elapsed since the hearing without final decision having been rendered. In the alternative, he requested the opportunity to present oral argument on the laches issue and on the merits. Other than argue that because of "the Committee's extensive and wholly unjustified delay, the proceeding should be dismissed in the interest of fundamental justice," Mr. Kuntzler did not present any constitutional issues for consideration by the Supreme Court.

 The Supreme Court issued a private reprimand on July 6, 1995, in which it denied counsel's request for oral argument. The Supreme Court dismissed the First Count of the Complaint regarding the Sammarco incident but privately reprimanded Judge Hunter for his refusal to cooperate with the Committee and admonished him for his inconsiderate and indefensible refusal to permit Ms. Sammarco to finish her testimony. The reprimand stated in part:

 
The Supreme Court has carefully reviewed the report of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and the record on which the report was based. The Court has determined that you should be privately reprimanded for your failure to cooperate with the Committee in connection with its investigation of the complaint that arose from the case of ...

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