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Judge stirs uproar after asking alleged rape victim if she closed her legs

Ocean County courthouse
Posted at 11:26 AM, Apr 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-05 14:51:16-04

A New Jersey family court judge was accused of misconduct after he asked an alleged rape victim if she tried to close her legs during a sexual assault.

Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr. was ordered by the state's Supreme Court on Wednesday to defend himself against allegations levied by an advisory panel that accused him of mistreating an alleged rape victim during a 2016 hearing and being discourteous toward her.

The Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct said Russo asked the victim, who was seeking a restraining order in a domestic violence case, if she could have closed her legs to thwart the alleged assault and questioned if she “knew how to stop somebody from having intercourse" with her, according to a transcript of the May 2016 hearing.

"Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?" Russo asked. "How would you do that?"

She responded, saying "I'd probably physically harm them … tell them no … to stop," or "try to run away."

Russo continued to press her, asking "Run away, get away. Anything else?"

"I -- that's all I know," she said.

"Block your body parts? Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?" the judge asked.

The panel recommended that Russo be suspended for three months, without pay, and attend additional training on appropriate courtroom demeanor over his comments after reviewing the transcripts, according to a court filing.

The panel said Russo's comments demonstrated "an emotional immaturity wholly unbefitting the judicial office and incompatible with the decorum expected of every jurist,” the review panel wrote in its 45-page recommendation detailing four incidents of misconduct.

He was also accused of three other judicial conduct violations, including allegedly failing to recuse himself from a case that involved a couple he knew, improperly communicating with a litigant in a case he presided over and using his office to influence a personal legal matter.

"We find [Russo's] questioning of the plaintiff's conduct in this circumstance was not only discourteous and inappropriate, but also egregious given the potential for those questions to re-victimize the plaintiff, who sought redress from the court under palpably difficult circumstances," the panel said. "This conduct constitutes a significant departure from the courtroom demeanor expected of jurists and impugns [Russo's] integrity and most notably that of the Judiciary."

In his official response to the panel, Russo said he denied any impropriety in the case, but maintained that he wouldn't ask alleged sexual assault victim those same questions in the future, according to the complaint.

Russo, appointed in 2015, was placed on paid administrative leave in May 2017. He returned to work earlier this year and was reassigned to a civil court in a neighboring county.

The complaint claims Russo violated multiple Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Court rules, including not upholding the standards of the judiciary.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for July 9 to make a final ruling. Russo's office did not immediately respond to ABC News' phone and email requests for comment.