Adopting the findings and recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which the judge accepted, the New Jersey Supreme Court censured a judge for identifying himself as a judge to court personnel when disputing his own child support payments and discussing the emancipation of his child. In the Matter of Palmer, Order (New Jersey Supreme Court November 8, 2018). The Court does not describe the judge’s conduct; this summary is based on the Committee’s presentment.
In March 2011, the judge obtained a judgement of divorce in Somerset County and made arrangements with the county probation department about his child support payments.
On March 21, 2017, the judge appeared at the Somerset County Courthouse and spoke in succession to a judiciary clerk, a caseworker, a senior probation officer (after the caseworker asked for assistance), and the senior probation officer’s supervisor (after the senior probation officer asked for assistance). While inquiring about the process necessary to emancipate his child and seeking information about his child support payments, he identified himself several times as a judge who sits in Ocean County, for example, showing his judiciary-issued lanyard, which was hanging around his neck and which identifies him as a judge, when asked for identification.
The judge informed the caseworker during their 20-minute discussion that he wished to dispute the cost of living adjustment that had been applied to his child support obligation, claiming it was improper because he “had not received a raise.” The caseworker described the procedure for challenging the COLA adjustment several times even though the judge was familiar with it, having contested 2 prior COLA’s. When talking to the caseworker’s supervisor, the judge again referred to his lack of a pay raise, remarking “you the tax payers decided that a long time ago.”
The judge’s conduct was “sufficiently disruptive and disconcerting” that a supervisor in the probation department told the Somerset County assignment judge and that judge, in turn, reported the incident to the Ocean County assignment judge.
The Committee found that the judge’s conduct created the potential that his judicial office would affect the probation department’s handling of his case and, therefore, constituted misconduct even if, as he claimed, he had not intended to influence them and there was no indication that they were actually influenced. The Committee explained:
As the record reflects, the judiciary personnel with whom Respondent interacted that day, unaware of his subjective motives, perceived Respondent’s multiple references to his judicial office as his attempt to trade on that office for his personal benefit. [The senior probation officer], when interviewed by Committee staff, testified that Respondent’s repeated references to his judicial office left her with the impression that “he was trying to see if [they] would change anything.” . . .
Similarly, [the caseworker], when interviewed, testified that Respondent’s repeated references to the fact that he was a judge left her with the impression that he expected her to “fix” his issues immediately. . . . She, in fact, felt pressured when dealing with Respondent precisely because of his repeated references to his judicial office. . . .
The Committee noted that, if the judge had intentionally abused the judicial office, substantially more severe public discipline would have been warranted.
On the other hand, the Committee concluded “enhanced discipline” (that is, something more than a private sanction or public reprimand) was justified because this was the 3rd time in 3 years that the judge had been the subject of discipline. In October 2015, the Committee had privately reprimanded him for displaying arrogance and aggression towards 2 litigants in 2 matters; in January 2017, the Committee had privately censured him for similar discourtesies towards 2 other litigants. It was a “mere” 2 months after the second private sanction that the judge went to the Somerset County courthouse. The Committee concluded that the judge’s “continued inability to conform his conduct to the Code of Judicial Conduct over these past several years, despite his recent receipt of prior discipline and his more than nine-year tenure on the bench, necessarily aggravates his abuse of the judicial office . . . .”