Removal of Judges for Misconduct

One of the saddest days for the judicial system is the day that the Supreme Court finds it necessary to remove a judge from his or her judicial office in order to protect the public and the integrity of the judicial system.  On this date in 1985, in Matter of Yaccarino, 101 N.J. 342 (1985), a unanimous Supreme Court did just that.

Thomas Yaccarino had been a judge of the Superior Court in Monmouth County for many years.  The Supreme Court observed that “respondent over the course of his judicial career has been assigned significant and substantial judicial responsibilities and has been a productive, conscientious, and energetic judge.”  The Court found, however, that Yaccarino’s conduct in a number of matters that were the subject of these proceedings under the Judicial Removal Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-1 to -11, “went well beyond the outer limits of acceptable judicial behavior.”  The Court upheld the findings of a hearing panel that had determined that Yaccariono had violated a number of the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. 

Yaccarino’s wrongful actions included the repeated display of “imperiousness, intolerance, and insensitivity, at cross-purposes with the decorum, consideration, and respect that judges should possess and display in court proceedings.”  But he was not removed because (or solely because) he was indelicate to persons who appeared in his court.  He also allowed “personal and family interests to override his judicial obligations,” and used “the power and prestige of his office as a Judge of the Superior Court to advance the private interests of his daughter” with respect to municipal court charges against her. 

Worse than that, Yaccarino had improper interests in certain businesses, which interests he wrongly attempted to conceal.  By that misconduct, Yaccarino  “manifested a disrespect for the law and otherwise failed to conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”  He also thereby violated the constitutional requirement that judges “not, while in office, engage in the practice of law or other gainful pursuit.”   N.J. Const. art. VI, §6, ¶6.

Finally, and most importantly to the Court, Yaccarino had attempted to acquire a piece of property that was going to be sold in connection with a corporate dissolution case over which Yaccarino was presiding.  There were tape recordings of Yaccarino engaging in conversations about that property that were damning to him.  When Yaccarino learned of the tapes, he advocated that they be destroyed, and that a witness falsely testify “that the tapes never existed.”  As the Supreme Court concluded, “[r]espondent attempted to conceal his wrongdoing by a pattern of conduct that at the very least could lead a knowledgeable observer to believe that there was an attempt to have persons suborn perjury and to have evidence of wrongdoing destroyed.”

In his defense, Yaccarino mounted various procedural and constitutional challenges, all of which the Court tersely swatted away.  Yaccariono’s main defense, however (apart from contesting the credibility-intensive findings of the hearing panel, an effort that did not succeed), was that his conduct resulted from and was excused by his medical condition, and that he should not be removed from the bench because he had filed an application for retirement based on his health problems.  The Court found that Yaccarino had some very serious health issues.  But that was irrelevant.  “The integrity of our judicial system must be preserved irrespective of the personal cause, be it emotional or otherwise, that is ascribed to a judge’s knowing and volitional failure to adhere to the high standards of conduct imposed upon all judges.”  Nor did Yaccarino’s impending retirement moot the removal.  “[P]reservation of the public’s confidence in the judicial system” required removal.

Fortunately, there have been very few such cases.  Each one, in its own way, is a tragedy for our system of justice, because it means that a constitutional officer– a judge– has breached his or her duties, and violated the judical oath, in outrageous fashion.