Rape Case Judge Resigns Over ‘Good Family’ Remark; State Orders Training

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Nick Corasaniti

THE NEW YORK TIMES

July 17, 2019

Judge James G. Troiano, shown in court in 2003.

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The Supreme Court of New Jersey, responding to a nationwide backlash over insensitive comments made by several judges in sexual assault cases, announced new mandatory training on Wednesday for judges across the entire system.

The move came as one judge involved in one of the high-profile cases resigned and removal proceedings were initiated for another.

James Troiano, the Monmouth County judge who recommended leniency for a 16-year-old boy accused of rape because the boy was from a “good family,” resigned from the bench, officials said.

The comments by Judge Troiano, which were made in a 2018 ruling, were seen by advocates for sexual assault victims as emblematic of a legal system that is mired in bias and privilege, and has deterred victims from reporting assaults.

Shortly after the comments became public in early July, elected officials called for the judge’s resignation, petitions circulated for his disbarment and a protest was held outside the Monmouth County courthouse where the judge had made the ruling. Judge Troiano and his family even received threats of violence.

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court said Judge Troiano, who had retired in late 2012, but continued to hear cases on a part-time basis, requested to step down. The court acceded and terminated his services effective immediately. A spokeswoman for the court said Mr. Troiano will keep his pension, which according to the state Treasury is calculated at 75 percent of his salary, for a total of $123,750.

Also on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court ordered a new initiative to improve the training of judges in the areas of sexual assault, domestic violence, implicit bias and diversity.

“The programs also will train judges in effective communication skills that will aid them in delivering clear decisions that are rooted in the law, respectful of victims, and understandable to the public while protecting the rights of the accused,” Glenn A. Grant, the acting administrative director of the courts, said in a statement.

Under the new initiative, the courts will recess within the next 90 days for a mandatory full-day educational conference focused partly on sexual assault. Mandatory annual training sessions will be developed with subject matter experts to train judges and judiciary staff.

The Supreme Court also announced that it would begin removal proceedings for Judge John F. Russo, who asked a woman if she had closed her legs to try to prevent an alleged sexual assault.

“Because of the seriousness of the ethical violations here, it is appropriate for the Court to consider the full range of potential discipline, up to and including removal from office,” wrote Justice Stuart Rabner, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

In the order, Justice Rabner cited a report from the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct that found Mr. Russo showed “an absolute disregard for the solemnity that must attend every court proceeding, particularly those involving such serious concerns as domestic violence.”

The removal process for a judge in New Jersey involves a formal hearing before a panel of Supreme Court judges. The order also suspends Judge Russo without pay pending the outcome of removal proceedings.

Lawyers for Mr. Russo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The controversy sparked by the two judges drew widespread condemnation from elected officials in New Jersey, many of whom called for the removal of both judges. On Wednesday, Gov. Philip D. Murphy released a statement praising the Supreme Court’s actions.

“Unfortunately, the inexcusable actions of several judges over recent months have threatened this reputation for thoughtful and reasoned opinion, and common decency,” Mr. Murphy said. “I am gratified that Judge Troiano will no longer sit on the bench and that removal proceedings will begin against Judge Russo.”

Judge Troiano, a longtime family court judge, made the comments in 2018 when deciding whether to try the accused teenager as an adult. Prosecutors had said the teenager sexually assaulted a visibly intoxicated 16-year-old girl at a party and recorded the act, sending the video to his friends, along with a text that said, “When your first time is rape.”

Judge Troiano decided the boy should not be tried as an adult, but an appeals court sharply rebuked and overturned his decision in June.

The appeals court warned Judge Troiano, 69, against showing bias toward affluent teenagers and said “the judge decided the case for himself.” Family court cases are typically confidential, but some of Judge Troiano’s comments became public in the appeals court’s 14-page ruling.

In making his decision last year, Judge Troiano appeared to question the girl’s level of intoxication, cited the boy’s good grades and college prospects and drew distinctions between sexual assault and the “traditional case of rape” at gunpoint.

In a two-hour decision, Judge Troiano questioned aloud whether prosecutors had adequately explained to the girl and her family that pressing charges would destroy the boy’s life.

“He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college,” the judge said.

He added: “This young man comes from a good family who put him into an excellent school where he was doing extremely well. His scores for college entry were very high.”

Judge Troiano retired in December 2012, but continued to work three days a week as a “recall” judge, occasionally filling in to help ease a backlog of court cases. There are currently 63 judges on recall in state Superior Court.

Judge Troiano declined to comment through a family member.

Last month, the appeals court also scolded a Middlesex County family court judge, Marcia Silva, who said during the sexual assault case of a 12-year-old girl that “beyond losing her virginity, the state did not claim that the victim suffered any further injuries, either physical, mental or emotional.”

Officials have not taken any action against Judge Silva despite similar calls for her resignation.

“The comments were victim-blaming and a manifestation of the fears that many survivors have when deciding how they want to proceed in the aftermath of an assault,” the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault said in a statement last week referring to the cases before Judge Troiano and Judge Silva.

Last week, the state’s top public defender came to the defense of Judges Troiano and Silva, issuing a rare public statement expressing concern on the impact the criticism of the judges could have on the judicial process.

“Vilifying or seeking the removal of judges who make unpopular or even erroneous decisions threatens the independence of the judiciary,” said Joseph Krakora, the top public defender for New Jersey. “Judges are simply lawyers entrusted with the responsibility of deciding difficult cases. Litigants sometimes feel that their decisions are incorrect or unfair. That is why we have appellate courts.”

Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to the police, 9 are referred to prosecutors and 5 will lead to a felony conviction, according to Department of Justice data analyzed by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Local advocates had for years clamored for judges to be trained in how to treat sexual assault victims, and legislation had recently been introduced.

Without naming judges by name, Mr. Grant, the active administrative director, said the trainings stem from “particular events” that “prompt us to engage in critical self-analysis that suggests the need to do more to instill the Judiciary’s longstanding guiding policies and principles into our daily practices.”

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