On September 21, the New Jersey Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge who had involved herself in the scheduling and processing of a friend’s custody case. In the Matter of Wright, Order (September 21, 2018). (The Court does not describe the judge’s conduct; this summary is based on the presentment of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.)
On September 26, the New Jersey Court removed a judge who had involved herself in a former intern’s custody dispute. In the Matter of DeAvila-Silebi, Order (September 26, 2018). (The Court’s order does not describe the judge’s misconduct; this summary is based on the report of a 3-judge panel.)
The imposition of drastically different sanctions in 2 cases involving improper use of influence is attributable in part to a difference in the nature and extent of the misconduct.
Judge Wright had escorted a friend seeking temporary custody of his grandson to the court’s intake office, talked to court personnel to ensure he had the right forms, asked the judge on emergent duty about the schedule, and then told a staff member that her friend could return on Monday; the staff member advised the judge that she would bring the friend to her desk so he could complete the application.
In contrast, Judge DeAvila-Silebi called the police the day before Mother’s Day and told a sergeant she wanted an officer to accompany a mother to retrieve her child. She identified herself as the emergent duty judge and explained that she had received a phone call from an attorney who had filed an emergent application on behalf of a client and that she had seen the order indicating that the mother was supposed to have the child that weekend. The police department dispatched an officer with the mother to the home of the child’s paternal grandmother; the officer took the 5-year-old boy from his grandmother and returned to police headquarters with the child and the mother, after which the mother left with the child. The father appeared at police headquarters approximately 2 hours later, irate and questioning why police had removed the child.
The panel also found that Judge DeAvila-Silebi had “demonstrated dishonesty, perversion of her judicial authority and betrayal of the public trust” by making numerous misrepresentations to the police department. For example, contrary to what she told the police sergeant, she had not received a phone call from an attorney, no emergent application had been filed, and she had not seen the court order regarding parenting time.
Probably the biggest difference that took the Court from reprimand to removal (the intermediate sanctions of censure and suspension without pay were also available) were the aggravating factors in the second case, particularly the judge’s “less than truthful” testimony before the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
In Wright, there were no aggravating factors, and the mitigating factors included her sincere remorse and contrition, which had demonstrated to the Committee that the likelihood of her repeating the misconduct was “nearly nonexistent.”
In contrast, in DeAvila-Silebi, the judge “not only failed to acknowledge her wrongdoing or express remorse or contrition” but “displayed additional dishonesty and transcended her right to present a defense.” Most significantly, the panel found that, despite her repeated denials, the judge did know the mother, who had been assigned to her as an intern for several months. In fact, the judge had continued to have contact with her after the internship ended, including exchanging texts just before and after the judge intervened with the police. Phone bills produced by the judge had obviously been altered, which was evident when compared with the bills provided by Verizon.
The panel explained that the judge had “constructed a defense predicated on the false claim that she received a call from an attorney or law enforcement agency requiring her emergent intervention to enforce another court’s order” and “perpetuated that falsehood throughout the proceedings before the ACJC, embellishing or revising it as necessary whenever she became aware of contrary evidence” until “the entire house of cards crumbled” when the “telephone records irrefutably demonstrated the falsity of respondent’s assertions.” The panel emphasized that the judge’s “’disturbing’ decision to perpetuate a defense without any ‘compunction about being less than credible’ as the investigation of her conduct continued, ‘evidence[s] that [she] lacks the honor and integrity demanded of a judge.’”