The opinion of the court was delivered by: Poritz, C.J.
On an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be removed from judicial office or otherwise disciplined.
In this judicial disciplinary case participating members of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC or Committee) have concluded that respondent Superior Court Judge Rosemarie Ruggiero Williams has violated Canons 1 and 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Rule 2:15-8(a)(6). By presentment filed with the Court, four members of the Committee recommend public censure as an appropriate sanction and, further, that Judge Williams continue to receive psychological counseling. Two members of the Committee, however, recommend that removal proceedings should be instituted pursuant to Rule 2:14 and N.J.S.A. 2B:2A-1 to -11, and one member recommends a suspension for six months.
On initial review of the presentment, the Court issued an Order to Show Cause why respondent should not be subject to removal proceedings or otherwise disciplined, and the matter was scheduled for oral argument. We now concur in substantial part with the findings of the ACJC majority but modify its recommendation in respect of discipline. Under our disposition Judge Williams shall be suspended from her judicial duties for a period of three months commencing on August 13, 2001, and shall forfeit her salary during that period.
This matter arose when the ACJC issued a formal complaint against respondent alleging, in two separate counts, violations of Canons 1 (requiring that judges personally observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved), and 2A (requiring judges to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary) of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Rule 2:15-8(a)(6) (prohibiting conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute). The first count asserts that respondent engaged in judicial misconduct when, on April 14, 2000, she confronted Alfred Wesley Bridges, with whom she previously had a romantic relationship, and Tami DeVitis, his companion that evening, at the Revere Restaurant in Ewing Township and, later, at Joe's Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton. The second count asserts that respondent engaged in judicial misconduct when she gave false and misleading information to the Trenton police and when she "identified herself as a representative of the Hopewell Police Department" in a telephone call to the Mill Hill. Respondent denies any judicial misconduct and, more specifically, that she lied to the police or pretended to be a police officer. She maintains that her behavior on April 14, 2000, "should properly be evaluated in the context of what had been a longstanding abusive relationship" with Bridges.
In accordance with Rule 2:15, the Committee conducted a formal public hearing on the complaint. With the approval of the Court, portions of reports by two psychologists and a therapist containing certain personal background information were entered into the record as confidential. During the four-day hearing, various witnesses provided testimony in support of the allegations in the complaint, including Bridges; DeVitis; Dennis Clark, the owner of the Mill Hill Saloon; Thomas Keefe, a bartender at the Mill Hill; and Trenton Police Officer Robert O'Hare. Respondent testified on her own behalf and presented testimony from Assistant Deputy Public Defender Joan Austin; Assignment Judge Robert E. Guterl (Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren Vicinage);*fn1 Judge Anthony Parrillo, Presiding Judge, Chancery Division, General Equity Part (Mercer Vicinage); Pam Fruscione, respondent's secretary in Mercer County; and Scott Krasny, President, Mercer County Bar Foundation. Relevant portions of that testimony were summarized by the ACJC and will be briefly presented herein.
From the time of her appointment to the bench on March 5, 1993, up to March 5, 2000, respondent served as a Superior Court Judge in the Mercer Vicinage.*fn2 She sat in the Mercer County Courthouse, where Bridges, an investigator with the Mercer County Sheriff's Department, also worked. Starting around April 1998, respondent and Bridges became romantically involved, but by April 14, 2000, that relationship had apparently ended. For at least a year prior to that date, respondent and Bridges had been abusive and confrontational toward one another.
On the night of April 14, respondent was having dinner with Assistant Deputy Public Defender Joan Austin at the Revere Restaurant. She noticed Bridges enter the restaurant accompanied by Tami DeVitis, a woman respondent did not know. Respondent was upset by their presence because she believed that Bridges had entered the restaurant knowing that she was inside and that she would be upset. Her car, a blue Land Rover with a bicycle rack, was parked directly in front of the Revere and would have been recognized by Bridges since he had driven it on a number of occasions. Bridges' knowledge of respondent's presence was later confirmed by Tami DeVitis who stated that on their way in to the Revere, Bridges commented that there might be "drama" inside.
After Bridges and DeVitis entered, respondent left her dinner table and confronted Bridges in the back of the restaurant. She told him that it was not appropriate for both of them to be there and that he should be the one to leave because she was in the middle of her meal. Respondent was emotional and acknowledged pulling Bridges' shirt although she claimed that happened when Bridges "shoved [her] away from him." At some point during the evening, Bridges' shirt was torn. Although DeVitis claims that respondent spoke to her using sexually explicit language, respondent denies any confrontation with DeVitis and there were no witnesses to the alleged encounter.
Both Bridges and DeVitis left and respondent followed them out to the parking lot. Another confrontation took place, in which respondent asked whether DeVitis was "with [Bridges]" and Bridges told respondent that he was taking DeVitis to Lorenzo's Restaurant and would return in five minutes. Bridges later testified that he lied to respondent in order to end the confrontation. Bridges and DeVitis then left and respondent returned to the Revere. She indicated to Austin that she would go home rather than wait for Bridges, and the women then paid their bill and also left.
Instead of going home, however, respondent drove in the opposite direction toward Lorenzo's Restaurant. On her way, she saw Bridges and DeVitis entering the Mill Hill Saloon and stopped her car. Respondent testified that when Bridges saw her approach, he yelled at her, threatening to have her arrested and to see to it that she lost her job. Pam Fruscione, respondent's former secretary, corroborated respondent's testimony in respect of Bridges' behavior. Respondent had called Fruscione from the car on a cell phone and Fruscione could overhear Bridges' threats.
Bridges and DeVitis entered the Mill Hill where Bridges asked the owner to call the police. Respondent left her car at the curb and followed them inside. She heard Bridges' request and knew that Dennis Clark, the proprietor, was on the phone, presumably with the police. A heated exchange then developed between respondent and Bridges. Although no witness heard what was said, respondent was observed gesturing and pulling on Bridges' arm or shirt sleeve. When respondent turned to leave, she and DeVitis screamed at each other, but their testimony as to who started that encounter differs. DeVitis testified that respondent called her a vulgar name after shouting obscenities at her and eliciting a similar response from DeVitis. Respondent testified that DeVitis shouted at her and that she said something "not pleasant" to herself without intending to be heard. No witnesses heard respondent or DeVitis, nor did DeVitis mention the encounter to the police when they questioned her.
Respondent then left the Mill Hill and drove two blocks to the front entrance of the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex. From there she called 911 on her cell phone. She gave the operator her name and location and said that there had been a confrontation at the Mill Hill after Bridges had followed her there. The 911 tape does not indicate, as the ACJC complaint alleges, that she misidentified herself as the person who had made the initial 911 call from the Mill Hill. Respondent did not at that time state that she was a Superior Court judge.
The police officers, who were already on their way to the Mill Hill, were rerouted to the Justice Complex. When the police arrived, respondent again represented that Bridges had followed her to the Mill Hill. She waited at the Justice Complex while the police went to the Saloon where Bridges and DeVitis each gave a statement. Both declined to file a complaint against respondent. When the police returned to the Justice Complex, respondent similarly declined to file a complaint.
Thomas Keefe, the bartender at the Mill Hill, testified that at some point after the police officers left there, he answered a call from a woman who identified herself as a police officer from the Hopewell Police Department and asked to speak to Bridges. When Bridges took the phone from Keefe, however, he immediately recognized the voice as respondent's and hung up. According to respondent's testimony, she told the bartender that she was calling from the Hopewell Police Department because she was near there. A tape-recorded telephone message indicates that after her call to the Mill Hill, respondent called Bridges' home and said she was on route to the Hopewell Police Department. She then called the Mill Hill a second time and apologized to the owner. At some point thereafter she arrived at the Hopewell Police Department and gave a statement to the police. She informed them that Bridges had a gun, but again declined to file a complaint.
Judicial disciplinary matters "before this Court on the presentment of the ACJC receive a de novo review of the record and are subject to a clear-and-convincing standard of proof." In re Seaman, 133 N.J. 67, 74 (1993). "Clear-and-convincing evidence is that which produce[s] . . . a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established, evidence so clear, direct and weighty and convincing as to enable [the factfinder] to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the precise facts at issue." Ibid. (citations and internal quotations omitted). In our review, we independently determine whether the record satisfies that demanding burden of proof. Id. at 74-75. Our inquiry is "whether the facts . . . demonstrate conduct . . . that is incompatible with" the canons of judicial conduct. Id. at 75.
In this matter, the facts were sharply contested. Witnesses to and participants in the incidents of April 14 gave disparate accounts of what actually happened and what was said. In some instances, the testimony suggests that witnesses viewed what they saw and heard from such different perspectives that they understood the same events differently. At times those variations were substantial. In such cases, the clear and convincing standard of proof may be difficult to meet. That is as it should be in a case involving allegations that a judge has violated the canons of our Code. The seriousness of such a claim, and the possible consequences to the judge, require that we have a clear and accurate understanding of facts that may give rise to discipline.
Canons 1 and 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct provide, respectively:
An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing, and should personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved. The provisions of this Code should be construed and applied to further that objective. [Canon 1.]
A judge should respect and comply with the law and should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. [Canon 2A.]
Canons 1 and 2A are clear: judges in this State are held to "high standards of conduct" because, otherwise, we risk the "integrity and ...