FRANKLIN (Somerset) — The township's municipal court judge is being made to answer for an ambiguous comment he made to a defendant who appeared before him in court.

Hector I. Rodriguez is being charged with violating three rules of judicial conduct after telling a woman, who he had released without bail, that what she owed him she couldn't "do in front of all these people."

The woman appeared before Rodriguez on Dec. 5, 2017, as he presided over Somerset County's Centralized Judicial
Processing, which is where criminal defendants make their first court appearance or enter their pleas.

Rodriguez decided to release the woman on her own recognizance, meaning that she did not have to post any bail.

Rodriguez, apparently noticing that the woman seemed perplexed, asked her if she understood.

"Do I owe you anything?" she asked.

"Not that you can do in front of all these people, no," Rodriguez replied.

After the hearing, the assistant prosecutor and the public defender spoke to each other and decided that the judge's comment should be reported to his superiors.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed a formal complaint, accusing Rodriguez of violating "high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved," of failing to avoid "impropriety and the appearance of impropriety," and not being "patient, dignified, and courteous."

The complaint notes Rodriguez's explanation for his comment. He denied it was sexual innuendo.

"You can't take it out of context," he was quoted as saying to the committee. "You take a statement and flip it around, throw it in the air, put spice on it and put it back into that — it's going to be the same when you — in the context of what I said. It was all about the monetary bail. And I — and she seemed confused. I said, well, you seem — I didn't say confused. And she goes do I owe you anything and I was like not that you would give me in front of all these people referring to money, a monetary bail."

The complaint says the judge's comment made no sense because the woman would not owe the judge anything under any circumstance.

Rodriguez was appointed to the Municipal Court in 2014.

This is not the first time he's been accused of making inappropriate remarks. In 2016, an Indian-American resident complained about Rodriguez joking that the defendant should be careful not to be pulled over by immigration authorities when crossing state lines.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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