Ever Feel Like a New Jersey Municipal Court Judge Has It Out For You
Municipal Court in New Jersey is a little bit like Alice’s Wonderland- everyone is a little mad. The jurisdiction is limited to traffic offences and low-level crimes like simple assault and shoplifting, which are called disorderly persons offences. The penalties doled out by the Judges are fines, license loss, court costs, community service and jail time limited to one (1) year.
But once you go down into the rabbit hole that is the Municipal Court system, you’ll see that there are other ways to get skinned. I’ve seen defendants cajoled into pleading guilty to a crime and then sentenced by the Judge within 30 seconds. I’ve been sanctioned (money fine) and a client held issued a bench warrant for not showing up to court – when it was later found out that neither of us were notified to appear. The trick, in my own personal experience is to remain calm and let the facts come to light. Below is the story of a defense lawyer in New Jersey that was tortured by a Municipal Judge for no seemingly good reason a few years ago(the Judge has since died of natural causes).
Judge Peter Locascio, a longtime municipal judge of two Monmouth County towns was accused of violating judicial ethics rules over his allegedly hostile and unfair treatment of a defense lawyer and his failure to recuse himself from cases being defended by another lawyer who is a close friend. The charges against Peter Locascio, who has presided in Highlands, N.J., and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., since 2002, are set forth in an Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct complaint made public in 2014. The ACJC complaint describes a series of in-court confrontations between Locascio and an unnamed defense attorney that began in August 2008 and went on for years to the point that “word of their acrimonious relationship spread among the surrounding legal community” and mutual friends and colleagues made unsuccessful attempts to resolve the hostility.
Locascio allegedly belittled and embarrassed the lawyer in open court, with clients and colleagues present, scolding and berating him, questioning his veracity and legal skills, detaining him and threatening him with sanctions though never imposing any, the complaint says. And when the attorney asked Locascio to recuse himself, filing three separate motions, the judge refused to decide them even after being ordered to do so by a Superior Court judge and urged to rule on them by his assignment judge and presiding judge, according to the complaint. The complaint said Locascio’s actions also harmed the lawyer’s clients by “delaying their cases, wasting their time and resources, and creating embarrassment and confusion for them during court appearances.” The judge eventually granted one of the motions but only after striking a deal with the lawyer to avoid appearing before him for at least one year, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleged Locascio’s motive for resolving his differences with the lawyer was that the judge had been arrested and charged with a DWI and refusal in October 2009 and wanted to focus on defending against them. Locascio’s defense lawyer, Paul Zager, described by the ACJC as his “very close friend” and someone he had known for more than 20 years, was the one who brokered the deal with the lawyer. Zager, a Red Bank, N.J.-based solo, acted as private counsel for Locascio in several civil matters and most recently defended Locascio on another municipal motor vehicle violation in 2013, ACJC disciplinary counsel Tracie Gelbstein said in the complaint. Despite their friendship and attorney-client relationship, Zager appeared before Locascio in three separate Atlantic Highlands municipal court matters between September 2009 and May 2013, according to the complaint. Locascio’s failure to disqualify himself from those matters in the face of an alleged conflict of interest was the basis for an additional count.
The ACJC traced Locascio’s animosity toward the unnamed defense lawyer back to a missed calendar call in Atlantic Highlands on March 24, 2008, which it described in detail. When the lawyer showed up in August of that year, Locascio confronted him about his failure to appear on the earlier date and refused to believe his explanation that it was a mistake or to accept his repeated apologies, according to the complaint. The lawyer claimed that he had just been retained that day, his client was out of town and he had to be in a different court that same evening so he faxed a request for a postponement, which his office file erroneously indicated had been granted, the complaint said.
Locascio questioned the lawyer and his client, accused him of “running his calendar that day,” threatened sanctions and demanded that the lawyer remain in court while he decided whether to impose them, according to the complaint. Later, Locascio called the lawyer back up to the bench and told him he would not sanction him unless it happened again, the complaint said. According to the complaint, the lawyer agreed a sanction would be appropriate if it happened again but added, “I don’t accept, judge, as a suggestion that somehow this is a pattern, because it’s not.”
Locascio then allegedly became “confrontational,” accused the lawyer of scolding him and said he knew that what really happened in March was that the lawyer knew the adjournment was denied but “told your guy not to come to court” anyway. The judge further said that, if not for the municipal prosecutor, “I would be banging with the sanctions right now.” Over the next year, as the lawyer appeared before Locascio on several other matters, things got worse between them, the ACJC said. Locascio allegedly ignored several letters from the lawyer expressing concern over the situation he said was “limiting my ability to represent my clients in your court” and offering to meet.
The ACJC described a series of clashes in which Locascio denied adjournments that the lawyer sought for such asserted purposes as obtaining discovery, subpoenaing witnesses, preparing motion appears and going on a preplanned vacation. One of the three recusal motions had to do with an out-of-state client facing a motor vehicle charge in Highlands. Relying on “the routine practice” of municipal courts excusing out-of-state motor vehicle defendants from having to appear at pretrial status conferences, the lawyer did not have the client come to court on Sept. 25, 2012. Locascio questioned his actions and demanded a formal request but then never responded to a written request for clarification, according to the complaint.
Two of the recusal motions were never decided but, in March 2013, Locascio sent the lawyer’s matters to the assignment judge, who assigned them to another court. Locascio is charged with violating Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3A(2), 3A(3), 3A(7) and 3C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Among other provisos, those canons require high standards of conduct, patient, dignified and courteous behavior, prompt disposition and disqualification where there is a personal bias or impartiality might be reasonably questioned. He is also charged with a breach of Rule 1:12-1(g), which deals with disqualification. Court spokeswoman Tammy Kendig said she could not release the name of the grievant who brought the complaint against Locascio because the grievant requested anonymity, nor could she say if the grievant was the attorney who was the target of the conduct described in the complaint.
The bottom line is that sometimes there is nothing to when a Judge has it out for except wait for him to die of natural causes.