Sexual assault trials are always going to be difficult for the victims; they require discussing the assault and all of its intimate details. It is usually safe to hope, however, that the judge presiding over the trial won't actively make things worse.
But in a 2016 case presided over by New Jersey Superior Court Justice John Russo, that is exactly what he did.
An ethics committee was asked to evaluate Justice Russo's behavior and determine if he violated any judicial rules during the case.
Russo was questioning the victim, apparently trying to determine if she resisted the assault, when he asked a particularly problematic series of questions.
"Do you know how to stop somebody from having intercourse with you?"
"Close your legs? Call the police? Did you do any of those things?"
This was neither a criminal trial nor a lawsuit; the woman was simply seeking a restraining order to protect herself and her child from her assailant, who was the father of her child. He had also threatened her life and made inappropriate comments to their five-year-old child.
@danibostick I wonder whether he asked the assailant what efforts he undertook to NOT ATTACK HER in the first place. Infuriating— Cee Gee (@Cee Gee)1554463564.0
Russo denies that he violated any judicial rules, claiming that he was simply trying to get information and wasn't trying to shame or humiliate the victim, in both court filings and at the hearing.
The ethics wrote a 45-page assessment of the situation and recommended that Russo be suspended without pay for three months as a result of Russo's behavior.
He has been on administrative leave since 2017. The committee further recommended that he be required to attend additional training on "appropriate courtroom demeanor."
They noted that Russo's behavior was:
"not only discourteous and inappropriate, but also egregious given the potential for those questions to re-victimize the plaintiff."
"This conduct constitutes a significant departure from the courtroom demeanor expected of jurists and impugns Respondent's [Justice Russo's] integrity and most notably that of the Judiciary."
One Twitter user brought up the point that situations like this are why sexual assault survivors do not disclose their assault: it will likely lead to their being humiliated and not protected anyway.
Reason #2,376 survivors do not disclose: New Jersey Judge John Russo asked a woman seeking a restraining order if… https://t.co/fS70fodIE7— Dani Bostick (@Dani Bostick)1554460386.0
There were many who thought a three-month suspension was insufficient discipline for such an infraction.
@danibostick Suspended for 3 months without pay!?! Is that seriously what they are considering to be a decent respo… https://t.co/p4ALjb3UuK— RockyP (@RockyP)1554656512.0
@danibostick There is a special place in hell for questions like that.— Lgshirls (@Lgshirls)1554560517.0
@danibostick A three month unpaid suspension & being retrained in proper courtroom decorum, that's it?!?!?! He need… https://t.co/O1lET7LO9w— Jen Revenge (@Jen Revenge)1554554067.0
@danibostick Disgusting. Should be removed from the bench immediately. His reasoning is obviously infantile and h… https://t.co/vlitIYuyb3— Patric Taylor (@Patric Taylor)1554709260.0
There is a plethora of resources and trainings on how to treat sexual assault victims with dignity. Perhaps this judge should have read one.
Someone in a position of power like a superior court justice should never treat a victim like they are the one on trial.