Hunter v. Supreme Court of New Jersey

Decision Date27 August 1996
Docket NumberCiv. No. 96-848 (WGB).
Citation951 F.Supp. 1161
PartiesHonorable Mac D. HUNTER, Plaintiff, v. SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey

Alicia D. Bass by Alicia D. Bass, Suzanne Halie, Cherise D. Kimball, Renee Lenzy, Jersey City, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Peter Verniero, Attorney General of New Jersey by Jeffrey J. Miller, Asst. Atty. Gen., Matthew R. Gabrielson, Don E. Catinello, Dist. Atty's. Gen., Trenton, NJ, for Defendants.


BASSLER, District Judge:

This case arises out of the Supreme Court of New Jersey's July 6, 1995 private reprimand of Judge Mac D. Hunter of the Superior Court of New Jersey. The Supreme Court reprimanded the Judge for his refusal to cooperate with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct in its investigation of a complaint against him. The Supreme Court dismissed the underlying complaint which alleged that the judge had abrogated his duties by refusing to extend the court session beyond 4:00 in order to allow a witness with special medical needs to complete her testimony. The Court noted, however, that the judge's refusal to allow the testimony to continue was "an abuse of discretion that borders on judicial misconduct."

On February 26, 1996 Judge Hunter filed a three count complaint in the United States District Court naming as defendants the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Honorable Robert N. Wilentz1, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ("ACJC"), and Honorable Sidney M. Schreiber, Chairperson of the ACJC. The Complaint alleges that the defendants violated Judge Hunter's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3).

The First Count contends that the defendants violated Judge Hunter's rights under the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In this Count, Judge Hunter asks this Court to vacate and rescind the letter of private reprimand, strike the decision, and permanently enjoin the defendants from implementing the disciplinary rules to discipline plaintiff.

Count Two asserts that the New Jersey court rules that establish the procedure for discipline of judges, Rules 2:15-1 et seq., are unconstitutional. Judge Hunter contends that the Rules violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. At oral argument, however, counsel for Judge Hunter withdrew the equal protection challenge. Count Two requests declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the defendants from applying the rules to future complaints against judges in the absence of certain due process protections.

Count Three contends that the private reprimand violated the disciplinary rules because the rules did not obligate Judge Hunter to make a statement to the Committee. Count Three also contends that the discipline imposed for his conduct towards the Committee was a violation of his First Amendment rights because it was based on statements he made to the Committee. In addition, Count Three alleges that "the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court of New Jersey knowingly acted unconstitutionally, with vindictive motives, in bad faith, with the purpose to harass him, and created institutional bias when they had predetermined to unconditionally preclude and refuse plaintiff's timely request for a post-deprivation review hearing, the right to submit legal briefs on his constitutional claims, and oral argument," thereby depriving plaintiff of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The defendants move to dismiss all counts. They assert that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and the Eleventh Amendment preclude this Court from exercising jurisdiction. Furthermore, they argue that absolute judicial immunity bars plaintiff's claims, and that the Complaint fails to state a cause of action for which relief can be granted. For the following reasons, the defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.


The following recitation of facts is based on documents that Judge Hunter appended to the Complaint. The documents include the entire record of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and further communications between the Supreme Court and Judge Hunter. The Court may properly consider these documents in the motion to dismiss because "the Complaint is deemed to include any written instrument attached to it as an exhibit or any statements of documents incorporated in it by reference." Cortec Industries, Inc. v. Sum Holding L.P., 949 F.2d 42, 47 (2d Cir.1991) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 960, 112 S.Ct. 1561, 118 L.Ed.2d 208 (1992). See also Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196-97 (3d Cir.1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1042, 114 S.Ct. 687, 126 L.Ed.2d 655 (1994).

A. The Underlying Grievance

Judge Hunter has served on the Superior Court of New Jersey since former Governor Kean appointed him in May, 1986. Former Governor Florio reappointed the Judge with tenure in May, 1993.

On September 22, 1992 Judge Hunter presided over his first civil trial in the Law Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. At the beginning of the trial, the judge read preliminary instructions to the jury indicating that the trial would end at 4:00 each day.

At approximately 3:45 p.m., the plaintiff called its second witness, Heidi Sammarco. The witness had throat cancer and was scheduled to undergo surgery on September 24th. She was unable to speak but could communicate by writing. When the plaintiff called Ms. Sammarco, Judge Hunter reminded counsel that the proceedings would conclude at 4:00. Judge Hunter also indicated that if the defense did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness, he would strike her testimony.

At 4:00 p.m., counsel for the plaintiff indicated that he was on his last question and requested that Judge Hunter extend the session because the witness would be unable to return the next day. The attorney indicated that Ms. Sammarco lived in Pennsylvania, was in ill-health, and would be undergoing surgery in two days. Defense counsel agreed to extend the session and indicated that he expected his cross-examination to last no more than 10 minutes. Judge Hunter refused. Plaintiff's counsel moved for a mistrial which Judge Hunter denied.

On September 23, 1992 Heidi Sammarco's father, Jack Sammarco, sent a letter complaining about Judge Hunter's conduct to Superior Court Assignment Judge Edward Beglin. The letter alleged that Judge Hunter was insensitive to his daughter's medical condition. The letter was referred to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ("ACJC or Committee").

B. The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct

The New Jersey Constitution grants the Supreme Court the authority to remove Superior Court Judges "in such manner as shall be provided by law." N.J. Const. Art. 6, § 6, ¶ 4 (amended 1978). The Supreme Court also has "jurisdiction over the admission to the practice of law and the discipline of persons admitted." Id. at Art. 6, § 2, ¶ 3.

In 1970, the New Jersey Legislature enacted the Judicial Removal Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:1B-1 et seq.2 to "implement removal procedures as authorized generally under the Constitution." Matter of Yaccarino, 101 N.J. 342, 350, 502 A.2d 3 (1985). The Act leaves "much to the Supreme Court's discretion, both by implication — by failing to define proceedings in more detailed and restrictive terms — and explicitly — by providing that `[e]xcept as otherwise provided in this [act], proceedings shall be governed by the rules of the Supreme Court.'" In re Coruzzi, 95 N.J. 557, 570, 472 A.2d 546 (1984) (quoting N.J.S.A. 2B:2A-8), appeal dismissed, 469 U.S. 802, 105 S.Ct. 56, 83 L.Ed.2d 8 (1984).

"[T]he Act contemplated authority in th[e New Jersey Supreme] Court to effectuate fully the power to be exercised in this area of judicial discipline." Yaccarino, 101 N.J. at 350, 502 A.2d 3. In order to utilize this power, the New Jersey Supreme Court has promulgated rules regarding the discipline of judges.

New Jersey Court Rule ("Rule") 2:15-1 creates the ACJC "[i]n order to implement N.J.S. 2A:1B-10, [currently 2B:2A-10] providing for suspension prior to a hearing, and to assist otherwise in fulfilling the administrative responsibilities of the Court." Rule 2:15-1. The Committee consists of nine members. At least two of the members must be retired Justices or Judges of the New Jersey Supreme Court or Superior Court. At least three of the members are members of the Bar, and no more than four members are laypersons.

Essentially, the function of the ACJC is to investigate complaints of judicial misconduct, and either dismiss them or institute formal proceedings against the judge. After conducting a hearing, the ACJC makes a recommendation to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding its findings and suggests appropriate disciplinary action, if necessary. The New Jersey Supreme Court then conducts its own review of the record, and makes the final decision regarding discipline.

The disciplinary procedure consists of several distinct steps. First, pursuant to Rule 2:15-8(a), the Committee must conduct a "preliminary investigation" upon receipt of

a written statement or criticism or complaint, not obviously unfounded or frivolous, ... alleging facts indicating that a judge of the Superior Court ... is guilty of: (1) misconduct in office, (2) willful failure to perform judicial duties, (3) incompetence, (4) habitual intemperance, (5) engagement in partisan politics, (6) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office in disrepute, (7) may be suffering from a mental or physical disability which is disabling to the judge and may continue to disable the judge indefinitely or permanently from the performance of judicial duties.

If the Committee decides not to proceed after the preliminary investigation, it notifies ...

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