NJ judge who went easy on accused prep school rapist steps down
A Family Court judge who believed that a prep school student should get easy treatment after he was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl is hanging up his robes for good following a public firestorm about his comments.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted Judge James Troiano’s request to be removed from the bench on the same day that they suspended another judge for telling a rape victim that she should close her legs, starting the procedure to remove him from office.
The state's court system on Wednesday also announced sex crime training for all judges. The training will apply to the hundreds of judges that serve in state — from the Supreme Court all the way down to local municipal courts, where nearly half of the state's domestic violence cases are heard.
Troiano was already retired but was serving on recall — getting paid $40,000 in stipends last year in addition to his $124,000 pension — to help fill vacancies on the bench.
The top court’s orders do not specifically address the controversy that Troiano’s words sparked this summer after New Jersey 101.5 reported on this and another juvenile case in the state’s Family Court. A Change.org petition had more than 89,000 signatures calling for Troiano to be removed and Troiano's family told The New York Times that they had received death threats.
More than a dozen state lawmakers called for the removal of both Troiano and Family Court Judge Marcia Silva, who caused a stir when she argued that a 12-year-old rape victim did not suffer enough.
The top court’s actions on Wednesday also do not mention Silva. But in a written statement, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner acknowledged “recent events” and says that judges “must follow the law even if an outcome may be unpopular,” that both the accused and the accuser deserve fair treatment, and that discipline of judges “requires a careful examination of the full record in context, not a rush to judgment.”
Additionally, Rabner said, “every effort must be made not to revictimize a victim.”
The only disciplinary action the top court is taking is against Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr. An advisory panel had previously recommended that Russo be suspended without pay for three months, a recommendation that Russo was willing to accept. But the Supreme Court on Wednesday began proceedings that could eventually remove him from the bench. In the meantime, he will be suspended without pay.
In addition to violating rules on several occasions, including ruling on an alimony case in which he knew both parties, Russo was taken to task for telling a rape victim during a restraining order hearing in 2016 that she could run away, call the police or “close your legs” in order to “stop somebody from having intercourse with you.”
Juvenile cases are kept secret to protect the identities of the defendants, but Silva and Troiano’s comments became public record last month after the appellate division overturned their decisions to deny prosecutors’ request to try the teens as adults.
Troiano questioned whether the attack on the drunk girl at party — which the teen is accused of recording on his phone and then sending to his friends with the caption "when your first time having sex is rape" — really was rape because there was no weapon. Troiano said the boy, an Eagle Scout, attended a good private school and worried that pressing charges in adult court could ruin his life.
Silva, in her attempt to stop prosecutors from upgrading charges, wondered how serious the sex assault of a 12-year-old girl really was “beyond losing her virginity.”
The separate appellate decisions found that the judges had not followed the law and had made inappropriate judgments. In Silva's case, they criticized her for minimizing the harm suffered by a pre-teen rape victim. In Troiano's case, they suggested he was exhibiting bias in favor of privileged defendants. The decisions did not say that the judges deserved to face discipline.
'A very clear message'
Rutgers-Camden law professor Bob Williams said the Supreme Court, by deciding to begin proceedings to remove Russo, “is sending a very clear message to all of the judges in the Garden State, and probably to lawyers and citizens alike, that despite the history of treating women poorly in sexual assault cases, the court is going to take strong measures to change that history now.”
“We have a centuries-long history of maltreatment of sexual assault victims, almost always women, and this court is basically signaling that that’s coming to an end," Williams said.
He said the decision by Troiano to permanently retire isn’t surprising.
“Obviously, in the context here, the judge has probably thought better of asking to continue to serve, when he knows that’s pretty unlikely.”
Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the decision to begin the process to remove Russo, the resignation of Troiano, and the enhanced training for all judges “signifies that New Jersey takes sexual assault seriously.”
She said these actions convey that message “for survivors that choose to engage in the criminal justice system, that the systems are responsive and appropriate when they come forward and we are moving clearly in the right direction.”
The courts' actions also drew praise from Gov. Phil Murphy, who previously has declined to say whether the judges should be punished.
“New Jersey’s judiciary has long been held up by observers across the nation as a model for other states. Unfortunately, the inexcusable actions of several judges over recent months have threatened this reputation for thoughtful and reasoned opinion, and common decency," Murphy said Wednesday. "I am gratified that Judge Troiano will no longer sit on the bench and that removal proceedings will begin against Judge Russo. I am pleased with the swift action taken by the Courts to uphold the reputation of our judiciary and ensure that all who seek justice are treated with dignity and respect.”
Citing the comments by the three judges, lawmakers and victims' advocates called for judges to get new training.
Rabner said that he asked the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts last week to develop enhanced training on sexual assault, domestic violence, implicit bias and diversity for Municipal, Superior and Supreme court judges.
“Sexual assault is an act of violence. It terrorizes, degrades, and induces fear in victims. Without question, it is a most serious matter in which fault lies solely with the perpetrator, not the victim. And our State has a strong interest in protecting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence,” Rabner said Wednesday.
“The accused in a sexual assault matter — as in every case — is entitled to a fair hearing that fully protects the person's constitutional rights and seeks to find the truth. At the same time, victims asked to relive harrowing experiences are entitled to the utmost sensitivity and respect from law enforcement and the court system. The State Constitution guarantees that right as well. So do basic principles of human decency. Every effort must be made not to revictimize a victim.”
State Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaic, on Wednesday “commend[ed] the Chief Justice and the Judiciary for taking seriously the concerns that many of us have raised regarding the abhorrent treatment of sexual assault victims in our state’s courtrooms.”
A week earlier, Corrado cited New Jersey 101.5’s reporting when she announced her intention to introduce legislation requiring training for judges and court employees on the handling of sex abuse investigations and proceedings.
“These are good first steps that will begin the process of restoring the confidence of survivors to seek the justice they deserve through our courts,” Corrado said Wednesday.
Training for all judges
The training plan for the judges will include education conferences that 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," Acting Administrative Director Glenn Grant said in a directive released Wednesday.
Training sessions will begin within six months and continue annually. They will include training for new and reassigned judges; three-day intensive training conferences for state judges "that enlists the expertise of professionals from across the country; one-day training for municipal judges; and division-specific sessions for trial judges.
Judges in New Jersey are appointed to seven-years terms by governors with a vote by the state Senate. They get tenure if reappointed a second time. Silva was first appointed in 2014.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.