Two N.J. Judges Face Ethics Charges Over Derogatory Comments on Bench

April 7, 2009 by Mary Pat Gallagher New Jersey Law Journal

New Jersey trial Judges James Convery and James Citta are in hot water for belittling litigants with remarks from the bench that an ethics prosecutor calls discourteous, undignified and discriminatory.

In complaints made public Monday, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct accuses Citta [complaint .pdf], of Ocean County, and Convery [complaint .pdf], of Essex County, of derogatory comments touching on litigants’ alienage, ethnicity, race, honesty, language ability or physical ailments.

The judges are charged, among other things, with creating an appearance of racial or ethnic bias.

One of Convery’s comments, in fact, was made to a Hispanic attorney appearing before him — a past president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey. The lawyer, Ivette Alvarez, filed a grievance over the comment and the association lodged a formal protest to Chief Justice Stuart Rabner last year.

The complaint against Citta, of Ocean’s Criminal Part, recited statements he made on April 13, 2006, when Alex Ramirez pleaded guilty to violating parole. Ramirez tried to explain, through an interpreter, that one reason for the violation was that he didn’t speak English and his parole officer didn’t speak Spanish.

Citta’s responded, “Now so let me understand this. Not only do we have to let him come into the country illegally and stay here, not only do we have to provide him with public assistance, not only do we have to provide him with free health care, not only do we have to provide him with a free attorney when he gets in trouble, now he wants a bilingual probation officer, because otherwise it’s inconvenient for him.”

Citta also advised the prosecutor, allegedly in a “sarcastic manner,” that she could address him in Spanish because the court had the benefit of a bilingual prosecutor and probation officer being present, as well as an interpreter.

The ACJC alleges Citta then engaged in a “gratuitous diatribe,” in which he called it “a miracle” Ramirez had not been sent back to Mexico and said that if it were up to him, “I’d take you just as you’re dressed and bound right now and have you escorted back to Mexico forthwith and forget the prison term.” He added that he hoped immigration officials, upon Ramirez’s release, would “scoop you up … and send you back.”

Citta also gave a tongue-lashing to defendant Earl Peeples at a Nov. 22, 2002, sentencing based on a conviction of attempted murder. When the victim’s mother attacked Peeples’ veracity, Citta agreed, calling him a “pathological liar” and stating he “wouldn’t know the difference between truth and a lie if it hit … [him] … in the face,” the ACJC says.

Citta berated Peeples at length, saying that his picture should be next to the words “domestic violence” in the dictionary and that the only differences between him and O.J. Simpson were that Simpson had more money and “got off for some reason in a land of fruits and nuts.” The difference between Simpson’s murdered wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Peeples’ victim, Susan Blake, was that Blake was lucky enough to get medical help before she “bled to death on her living room floor,” Citta said.

Convery’s remarks to Alvarez that prompted her grievance were captured on video at a Jan. 4, 2008, hearing in the Essex Family Part. After Alvarez’s client, Benjamin Taylor, could not produce his Social Security earnings statements, Convery expressed disbelief and asked others in the courtroom whether they had received their statements.

When Alvarez replied she had not received her own statements for the past three years, Convery said to her: “Well, when did you become an illegal alien?”

Alvarez told him his words were “totally inappropriate” and walked out of the courtroom. Convery apologized upon her return about 10 minutes later.

The other incident involving Convery occurred during a Sept. 20, 2007, child support hearing, when the lawyer for the father, Joseph Kozielski, mentioned that her client wore a hearing aid.

“What?” Convery allegedly responded, eliciting laughter in the courtroom.

Later in the hearing, Kozielski’s lawyer placed on the record information about his post-divorce medical history.

On hearing about the five knee operations, a back operation, hip and knee replacements and a separated shoulder, Convery allegedly quipped, “It’s that new show, Bionic Woman. You might be better off.”

Kozielski and his lawyer filed grievances against Convery. During an informal meeting with the ACJC about both accusations on March 6, 2008, Convery apologized and denied any intent to “impugn” or offend Kozielski. He claimed he only meant to imply that Kozielski might be better off after the surgeries than before, while acknowledging the comment could be offensive. Convery also said he did not mean to express any bias toward Alvarez.

Both judges are charged with violating Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 1, requiring judges to observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved; Canon 2A, requiring judges to respect and comply with the law and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; Canon 3A(2), requiring judges to maintain order and decorum in judicial proceedings; Canon 3A(3), requiring judges to be patient, dignified, and courteous to all those with whom they deal in an official capacity; and Canon 3A(4), requiring a judge to be impartial and not discriminate because of race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, language, marital status, socioeconomic status, or disability.

The judges’ remarks were also intemperate and prejudicial to the administration of justice thereby bringing the judicial office into disrepute in violation of New Jersey Rules of Court 2:15-8(a)(4) and 2:15-8(a)(6), the ACJC says.

Alvarez, of Einhorn Harris Ascher Barbarito & Frost in Denville, N.J., said of the complaint against Convery, “I feel very proud of the system, that we can file grievances and that they will be taken seriously.”

George Rios, the current president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, issued a statement welcoming the complaint and saying “ethnic slurs have no place in the courts of New Jersey.”

Rios added that “in today’s climate in New Jersey where anti-immigrant hysteria is increasingly in vogue, accusing Latino members of the bar of being ‘illegal aliens’ is code for engaging in discriminatory and stereotypical name — calling that isolates Latino attorneys, questions their legitimacy and competence, and perpetuates the notion of ‘other’ that the HBA has steadfastly sought to eliminate.”

Citta and Convery were appointed to the bench by Gov. James Florio, Citta in 1992 and Convery in 1993.

In the New Jersey Law Journal’s most recent judicial survey, published in January 2005, they were among the judges lowest rated in category of courtesy and respect for lawyers and litigants. Citta was rated second to last of 366 judges statewide. Convery was ranked only four spots higher than Citta at 361.

Neither judge returned a reporter’s calls seeking comment on Monday.

The complaint against Convery is docketed as ACJC Nos. 2008-122 and 2008-136 and the complaint against Citta as ACJC Nos. 2008-180 and 2008-256.

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