On May 26, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court removed Judge John P. Russo from the bench “effective immediately” in response to his egregious questioning of a rape victim. In 2016 the woman sought a final restraining order against the father of their child, telling the court that he threatened her life and sexually assaulted her. Judge Russo took over the cross-examination and demanded: “Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you? ...Block your body parts? …Close your legs?” He then denied the requested order.
We are proud that the decades of work by our National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) have raised enough awareness about the realities of sexual violence to make Russo’s removal possible.
Our efforts in New Jersey date back to 1982, when the state’s then-Chief Justice, the late Robert Wilentz, responded to our work by appointing the country’s first state supreme court task force on gender bias in the courts, with NJEP Director Lynn Hecht Schafran as a member. The report of that task force made page one of The New York Times and sparked a national movement.
Fighting judicial ignorance about sexual and domestic violence has been an uphill battle. Other New Jersey judges also recently incited national outrage, demonstrating that educating the judiciary continues to be essential to the struggle for gender equality:
- In a case involving a high school student who filmed himself raping a clearly intoxicated girl and posted the video online with the caption “when your first time is rape,” Judge James Troiano noted that the rapist was an Eagle Scout and said, “this young man comes from a good family.” Reminiscent of the Brock Turner case, he castigated prosecutors for not counseling the victim that pursuing the case could ruin the young man’s life. Due to widespread condemnation of his remarks, Judge Troiano resigned from the bench.
- When hearing a case about the rape of a 12-year old girl, Judge Marcia Silva said that, “beyond losing her virginity, the State did not claim that the victim suffered any further injuries, either physical, mental or emotional.” Judge Silva is now facing an investigation by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct for her remarks.
- Judge Steven Brister told a defendant accused of domestic violence that men should not beat women when they “get frustrated” with them. Instead, he said men should hold women like “a feather” and “just let them know that you’re the man and you’re in control.” He, too, is now facing disciplinary charges.
New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner closed all N.J. courts on October 28, 2019 and required the state’s 505 judges from all levels of court to attend a Gender Violence and Bias Summit at which Schafran and NJEP Senior Attorney Jennifer Becker presented.
Becker presented NJEP’s curriculum Raped or Seduced? How Language Shapes Our Response to Sexual Violence. Lynn presented on Stress, Trauma and the Brain: Implications for the Courts. She explained how the brain’s involuntary response to threat often results in sexual assault victims’ counterintuitive behaviors, such as not screaming or running and showing no emotion on the witness stand, how trauma often delays reporting and almost always results in profound psychological harm, and how exposure to domestic violence so stresses children that it actually changes their brains. Schafran and Becker later gave both presentations for the Gender Violence and Bias Summit for New Jersey’s 300+ municipal judges.
Russo’s removal sets an important nationwide example as a serious response to gender bias in the courts. As Chief Justice Rabner wrote in the removal opinion, “no witness, alleged victim or litigant should be treated that way in a court of law.”
We are proud that our National Judicial Education Program (NJEP) has led the long fight that made Russo’s removal possible.
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