The Case of Roberto A. Rivera-Soto, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, Ethically Compromised
Rivera-Soto faces an ethics complaint charging that he abused his position when he contacted several local officials in an attempt to help his son, who was having trouble with a teammate on his high school football team. On Nov. 30, Justice Rivera-Soto suspended Judge Mathesius for one month for conduct unbecoming a judge.
May 13, 2007
New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Accused of Ethics Violation
By ANTHONY RAMIREZ, NY TIMES
Like any father, Roberto A. Rivera-Soto loves his son and does not want him to get hurt.
But Mr. Rivera-Soto is a New Jersey Supreme Court justice, and he now faces an ethics complaint charging that he abused his position when he contacted several local officials in an attempt to help his son, who was having trouble with a teammate on his high school football team.
In a rare action against a member of New Jersey’s highest court, the state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, which filed the complaint on Friday, accused Justice Rivera-Soto of violating court rules, including engaging in conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.”
After the justice responds to the charges, the commission will hold a hearing. It can recommend a reprimand or the stronger condemnation of censure, suspension from office or outright removal.
If Justice Rivera-Soto, 53, rejects the recommended penalty, he can appeal to his six colleagues on the State Supreme Court.
His lawyer, Bruce P. McMoran, said the justice broke no rules and acted reasonably. “He’s a father, and he acted like a father,” Mr. McMoran said. “His son had a problem with another student in school, who is older. And he dealt with it as any father would have, under the circumstances.”
The trouble began on the playing field of Haddonfield Memorial High School, where one of the justice’s sons, who was not identified in the committee papers, is a sophomore and member of the varsity football team. He clashed with another student, also unnamed, who is a senior and captain of the football team.
Last September, according to the committee’s complaint, the justice’s son said the senior had hit him. The school warned the senior but took no further action. Justice Rivera-Soto complained to the school’s vice principal and the football coach.
Then, on Sept. 28, the justice’s son said that the senior had head-butted him during a touch football game. The vice principal said it was an accident. Justice Rivera-Soto warned school officials that if they did not act, he would go to the state police and file a criminal complaint naming the officials.
Later that evening, the justice called Richard Tsonis, the Haddonfield police chief, who sent a detective to his home. Justice Rivera-Soto gave the detective his Supreme Court business card, according to the committee’s complaint. The justice later signed a criminal complaint of assault against the senior.
The next morning, the justice called the vice principal, demanded action against the senior and again identified himself as a justice.
Later that day, the justice telephoned Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. of Camden County Superior Court, advising him of his complaint, the committee said. He also called James P. Lynch, the county’s acting prosecutor.
The justice, according to the committee’s complaint, “further asked the prosecutor to make certain that his complaint received attention.” He also requested, with both Judge Orlando and the prosecutor, that the “matter be treated no differently than any other matter,” the committee said.
The committee’s investigators detailed several more instances in which Justice Rivera-Soto identified his office or used his business card.
On Dec. 15, the justice and the family of the senior resolved their dispute by agreeing that if there were no more fights through the end of the school year, “the matter would be dismissed by the court.”
Justice Rivera-Soto, a Republican, became the first Hispanic on the State Supreme Court when he was appointed in 2004 by Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat. He was a former assistant United States attorney in Pennsylvania and had represented casino operators in private practice. According to the Supreme Court Web site, he is married to the former Mary Catherine Mullaney. They have three sons, Adam, Christian and Nathan, and live in Haddonfield, in Camden County.
The last complaint against a sitting justice was against Robert L. Clifford, who was reprimanded in 1990 for drunken driving. He retired four years later.
Justice Rivera-Soto himself handled a disciplinary case involving another judge, Bill Mathesius of Mercer County, for remarks the judge made on and off the bench, including one case in which he told a defendant to “get on your hands and knees tonight and thank God that this jury didn’t see the forest for the trees.”
On Nov. 30, Justice Rivera-Soto suspended Judge Mathesius for one month for conduct unbecoming a judge.
December 1, 2006, 12:31 pm
Free-Tongued New Jersey Judge Suspended Without Pay
Posted by Peter Lattman
Wall Street Journal LawBlog
The New Jersey Supreme Court suspended a state court judge for 30 days without pay, ruling that his outspokeness violated the code of judicial conduct. Here’s the 50-page opinion and the story from the New York Times.
Superior Court Judge Bill Mathesius, 66, reportedly was nicknamed Wild Bill for his intemperance when he was a federal and county prosecutor. He apparently didn’t tone it down after being appointed to the bench in 2002.
“Judge Mathesius presents an almost indecipherable riddle,” the court’s opinion said. “On the one side,” it said, the judge had been portrayed as “a longtime public servant who is learned in his craft, willing to assist his colleagues and generous with his time and knowledge.” But “on the other side,” the court said, was “indisputable proof of repeated and unremorseful instances of petulance, sarcasm, anger and arrogance.”
Among the incidents: After a criminal trial he told the defendant after a not guilty verdict to “thank God that this jury didn’t see the forest for the trees” and then entered the jury room and, according to one juror, “asked us what the hell we were thinking about.”
In a statement, Judge Mathesius said the charges “involve no allegation of criminal or civil wrongdoing, no personal misbehavior, no embarrassing conduct — in short, no allegations remotely involving moral turpitude.” He added: “I have, however, spoken and written what I believe to be the truth, and to that I plead guilty.”
Report offensive comments to email@example.com
Although this Judge’s remarks show his ex-prosecutor side, disallowing tough talk from the bench in the criminal courts of Trenton reflects how meek these appellate judges can be. In the instances cited, this Judge had cases involving gang and drug activity, gun play, and dress suggesting a defendant’s disrespect for the Court. Something needs to be said in these cases. To muzzle the bench grants a lot of latitude to those who appear in criminal court.
Comment by Thomason - December 1, 2006 at 12:56 pm
Typical uneducated prosecutor who grows up to be a typical idiot judge. He’s not even sorry and sounds like a pompous egomaniac.
“Something needs to be said in these cases”? Its NEVER okay to try to harrass a jury before or after their verdict, especially by a judge. Its almost laughable. The fact that this judge did this clearly shows a lack of good judgement on his part. He should be thrown off the bench.
Comment by Anon - December 1, 2006 at 1:10 pm
From the Times: Judge Mathesius was also accused of approaching a law clerk of an appellate judge who had overturned one of his opinions and asking the clerk to pass along the message that the judge was “inexperienced and not competent.”
He picks on law clerks, too?
Comment by Trenton - December 1, 2006 at 1:12 pm
It is nice to see action is being taken upon officials who abuse their positions of authority.
Comment by wmupsci_student - December 1, 2006 at 3:27 pm
Being a passionate advocate for one’s own point of view, is not necessarily a bad thing.
It seems that the “arrogance” this man is accused of is a lack of respect for those who he believes to have made errors in the carriage of justice.
If he were CORRECT and the jury blew it, if he were CORRECT and the appellate judge who overturned him blew it (per Trenton’s comment), maybe what we are seeing here is an “arrogance” on the part of the New Jersey Judiciary.
I.E., don’t you date criticize us! We are greater than thee!
But in fact, truth is pursued by individuals more than groups, and if this judge is too passionate in his quest for truth, maybe it is they who could learn from he?
Comment by Arrogance? Or Passion for Truth? - December 1, 2006 at 8:54 pm
That’s the problem with a person with arrogance: he PRESUMES he’s correct all the time.
Comment by Anon - December 1, 2006 at 10:16 pm
Judge Mathesius mistaken believes he was appointed to be a truth-speaker. He was appointed to be a judge in a world already full of truth-speakers. In fact, we have truth-speakers who regularly specialize in our court system, including our President.
If he wishes to be a truth-speaker he needs to retire.
Comment by Greedy Trial Lawyer - December 2, 2006 at 6:33 am
Does he assume he is correct all the time, or only when he is correct?
Do the errors of the jury system make him incorrect?
Or is “correct” merely “politically correct”, i.e., the jury screwed up, but it is politically correct to bless their error as if it were truth and not an error?
And what about, in that context, giving the defendant a firm warning to perhaps deter his next crime? Sounds like a very good idea to me.
Again, is it possible that the “system” is what is arrogant, and this judge is someone is more honest that the system which employs him?
Comment by Does He? - December 2, 2006 at 8:48 am
Sorry Anon, but don’t we all think that our opinion is correct? That is why it is “our own” opinion, right?
Maybe this judge actually cares that justice gets served. Maybe he’s willing to buck those who don’t care.
He didn’t do what some judges have done — exploit his position to get something for himself, like some New York judges who have extracte secret bribes. In fact this judge did just the opposite, he risked his own career to stare injustice in the face and kick it in the pants.
It would have been more selfish of this judge to just smile and say thank you to the jury who he believed screwed up — and the defendant he felt would offend again.
This sounds like a judge who still understands and truly believes in the difference between right and wrong.
May we all be so lucky as to face such judges on judgement day.
Comment by We all think we our opinion is correct, that's why it's called "our opinion" - December 3, 2006 at 5:09 pm
watch the judge try to defend himself at:
Comment by anon - December 4, 2006 at 10:25 am
Yes, we all think we’re correct but we’re not the decision-maker all the time and have to accept the fact that other people will have different opinions. That doesn’t give us the right to harrass them.
If a jury reaches a decision, its absolutely arrogant of a judge to express his personal opinion about the matter. Its not his call to make. The problem arises when an arrogant person can’t accept the fact,that maybe, just maybe, someone has an opinion different from his. Rational people disagree and recognize that there are other opinions out there; arrogant judges bully and harrass believing only they can be correct and no one else can.
This is a judge who harrases jurors, law clerks (Jesus Christ, law clerks!?), defendants, and appellate judges? C’mon, this is the textbook case for removal of a judge. In fact, in most other states he would have been removed or quietly told to retire.
Comment by Anon - December 4, 2006 at 5:44 pm
Harrasses? What exactly is harassment of “jurors, law clerks, defendants and appelate judges?”
I’ll be it is NOTHING like what private lawyers do to their own clients in the thick of litigation.
This is a textbook case of “our club has been insulted — kick him out”.
Try working in a high tech company as a programmer and letting a fatal bug slip into a software release. The alleged “verbal behavior” of our most successful Americans — like Steve Jobs — in that context would cause this judge to look like a shrinking violet by comparison.
Comment by Harasses? - December 5, 2006 at 5:27 pm
That’s just it: he’s a judge, not an advocate in his courtroom and not the CEO of a major company. He’s supposed to be a humble referee. When was the last time you saw an umpire call a strike, turn to the batter and say, “You should have swung at that, you moron!”. He’s supposed to be a judge, not a prosecutor. He’s demonstrated over and over again (so much so that he had be suspended!) that he can’t act in a profesional manner. His ego keeps tripping him up.
Comment by Anon - December 6, 2006 at 4:21 pm
Well, I wish more judges would say to “lawyers”: “you should have swung at that you moron!” In fact, I’ll use that line with some of my lawyers who live in a fantasy world of being coddled by judges who act like they are just so effective.
I’m starting to really admire this judge.
And by the way, I don’t think it’s ego at all. He just has a passionate sense of the difference between right and wrong, and injustice pains him.
What pains you and others on this blog, is having a member of the judiciary implicitly point out weaknesses (and defective decisions) coming out of your beloved, most-expensive-on-the-planet legal system.
Comment by You should have swong at that you moron! - December 7, 2006 at 12:18 pm
By the way, have any of you gushing-with-empathy lawyers out there considered that this judge may have felt a little bit for the victim in that criminal trial where he admonished the defendant?
Oh yeah, crime victims are just grist in the mill, right?
They are the citizens who pay for your beloved justice system, and when not served by it they are greatly harmed.
So the alleged perp gets off, suffers “irreprable harm” in the form of a stern warning from the judge, and the poor jury gets told that they maybe, just maybe, failed in their civic duty.
And of course a bunch of legal people who think the legal system is all about them, get offended.
What a country we have here!
Comment by And maybe he cared about the crime victim? - December 7, 2006 at 12:24 pm
Mathesius off the bench for 30 days
By SCOTT FROST
TRENTON -- New Jersey’s Supreme Court suspended Mercer County Superior Court Judge Bill Mathesius for 30 days without pay yesterday and told him to use the time off to "reflect on his position of authority."
In a written opinion, Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto said Mathesius violated the code of judicial conduct by questioning a jury’s acquittal of a weapons suspect and criticizing the appeals judges who reversed one of his decisions.
In ordering the month-long suspension, the top court rejected a judicial advisory panel’s reccomendation of a six-month suspension, three without pay.
Rivera-Soto noted that Mercer County Superior Court Judge Rosemary Williams was suspended for three months in 2001 for "conduct unbecoming’’ stemming from two public arguments with her boyfriend the courtroom bailiff.
"I have never betrayed the trust imposed upon me," Mathesius said yesterday. "The charges which have been deemed to merit me 30 days suspension involve no allegations of criminal or civil wrongdoing, no personal misbehavior, no embarrassing conduct -- in short, no allegations remotely involving moral turpitude."
Rivera-Soto wrote, "the discipline recommended by the advisory committee ..is, albeit understandable, excessive, while the discipline urged by Judge Mathesius -- a censure -- is disproportionately insignificant in the circumstances presented."
"In the end, we conclude that a 30-day suspension without pay from judicial duties is an appropriate level of discipline in this matter," the Rivera-Soto wrote in the opinion. "The conclusion is founded on our firm belief that a suspension from judicial duties is appropriate to allow Judge Mathesius the opportunity to reflect on his position of authority."
The opinion said the court found Mathesius "clearly culpable." But his offense, the court said, "does not rise to the level of misconduct that authorized a three-month suspension."
According to the complaint, the Supreme Court had taken original jurisdiction of the matter because of what it referred to as the judges’ "outrageous, sarcastic and pejorative comments about this State’s death penalty system."
Mathesius yesterday stressed in a short press release that most of his problems with the panel stemmed from his 2002 controversial opinion in the Ambrose Harris murder case -- in which he upheld the city man’s conviction in the rape, kidnapping and murder of Kristin Huggins.
In May, Mathesius told The Trentonian the Harris opinion, "has haunted me since I wrote it.
"Mostly, I am troubled that the genesis of much of the concern is attributable to an opinion which I wrote in good faith," Mathesius said yesterday referring to the Harris decision.
"I would like to note that I have, in my career, taken an oath of office as an attorney, a prosecutor, an elected official, a municipal judge and a Superior Court Judge. On each occasion I’ve taken that oath seriously and continue to regard my obligations seriously."
Back in 2002 Mathesius said Harris’ case was not worth the millions of dollars it takes to execute a criminal in New Jersey or the price of endless appeals.
He said the cost and time spent on continuous appeals, "compels the pragmatic conclusion that (the death penalty) be finally legislatively or judicially annulled as opposed to being merely nibbled to death by state and federal ducks."
"The death penalty process has devolved into a nourish Rube Goldberg contraption that seems to metastasize regularly with each novel ruling," the judge told The Trentonian Oct. 31, 2002.
"I have spoken and written what I believe to be the truth and to that I plead guilty," Mathesius said yesterday. "I hope to continue to speak and write what I believe to be the truth."
With the suspension, Mathesius will lose $11,750 of his $141,000 yearly pay.
Still, Rivera-Soto described Mathesius as "a long-time public servant who is learned in his craft, willing to assist his colleagues, and generous with his time and knowledge...’’
The judge continued, however that the panel’s findings"presented indisputable proof of repeated and unremorseful instances of petulance, sarcasm, anger, and arrogance."
In the last five years, Rivera-Soto said Mathesius appeared before the board four times, resulting in two letters of admonition, one informal conference and one presentment.
COULD BE CUT HERE
Mathesius was brought before the advisory committee in May to face allegations he’s made remarks and said comments in the court room and to juries, defendants and lawyers, that go against the code of judicial conduct.
An eight-page complaint, filed in February by Patrick J. Monahan Jr., detailed four instances where Mathesius’ activities upset the committee.
It alleged Mathesius didn’t act in the proper code of ethics that says judges "observe high standards of conduct" and "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary," the complaint read.
The recommendation read the judge’s questionable conduct is admitted by Mathesius himself, with the judge saying his experiences in politics "accounts for his penchant for spontaneity and bluntness."
According to the original complaint Mathesius questioned a juries’ decision to acquit Trenton resident Deandre McDaniels of gun possession in 2005 by walking into the jury’s room saying, "What the hell were you thinking?" after the verdict was read.
He also proceeded to discuss the evidence in the case with the jurors afterward -- informing the panel McDaniels had a prior criminal record and that the prosecution would have had more witnesses if the defendant hadn’t scared them away.
Another complaint says Mathesius "made derogatory and denigrating remarks" about an appellate judge who reversed one of his convictions.
At a Mercer County Bar Association dinner Sept. 14, 2005, the reports read Mathesius was talking with the judge’s law clerk, who penned an opinion where the Appellate Division reversed the conviction in a Hamilton robbery case the judge presided over.
Mathesius admitted he spoke to the law clerk, but denied making derogatory remarks about the author, Jane Grall.
He also denied, as the complaint read, acting in a "confrontational manner that was intimidating" toward the judge at the annual Judicial College two months later.
In July 2004, the report complained Mathesius entered the jury room during the deliberation in the murder trial of Freddy Dean and Dionte Byrd to ask jurors whether they wished to continue that day or go home and return in the morning.
The report complains the judge didn’t inform the prosecutor or defense lawyer before going into the room and didn’t invite counsel in with him.
Dean’s lawyer Andrew Schneider objected to the visit.
Mathesius responded by saying "Thank you. You can do that when you’re a judge. I’ll do it the way I do it when I’m a judge," according to the complaint.
He was also questioned for sending a letter to the newspapers in 2001 to "express his gratitude" to a local mayor for appointing him to a part-time municipal judgeship, the report read.
And on Oct. 27, 2004, the committee held an informal conference with Mathesius after he said a defendant was "nuts" for rejecting a plea deal.
The suspension takes effect on Dec. 4 and runs to Jan. 2, 2007, the opinion reads.