New Jersey Law Journal

Judge Facing Ethics Charges Seeks Recusal of Two N.J. High Court Justices
By Charles Toutant
New Jersey Law Journal

A New Jersey judge facing a Supreme Court hearing on charges he made inappropriate comments to jurors and about other judges is asking that two members of the court recuse themselves due to alleged bias.

Superior Court Judge Wilbur Mathesius filed a motion on Aug. 23 urging that Chief Justice Deborah Poritz and Justice Jaynee LaVecchia not participate in his disciplinary case because they have criticized him in the past.

Mathesius is challenging the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct's findings that he committed ethics violations the committee said warranted a six-month suspension, half without pay.

At issue is Mathesius' conduct in Mercer County's Criminal Part in 2004 and 2005 and conduct resulting in two admonitions while he was a municipal court judge. ACJC Chairman Alan Handler found that ethics prosecutors proved by clear and convincing evidence allegations in a four-count complaint charging that Mathesius:

• berated a jury for acquitting a defendant of illegal handgun possession;
• talked ex parte to jurors in the midst of deliberations in a murder case;
• made derogatory comments, some in public, about appellate judges; and
• made gratuitous remarks that show bias about cases or defendants.

His hearing at the court is scheduled for Sept. 25, but Mathesius says Poritz and LaVecchia should not be sitting. In the certification supporting the recusal motion, he says both justices have accused him or made findings of wrongdoing, which means they are predisposed to find against him.

In one instance, he says that Poritz -- when she summoned Mathesius to a meeting earlier this year -- accused him of "stalking" Appellate Division Judge Jane Grall during the court's annual Judicial College last November and said the episode might be characterized as criminal or quasi-criminal.

He says Poritz criticized him for sitting down next to Grall in the audience at a writing seminar for appellate judges. That came after Mathesius wrote a letter to Grall about her panel's August 2005 ruling overturning a conviction in an armed robbery case, State v. Fletcher.

Mathesius says Poritz told him during their meeting that Grall is "a personal friend of [hers]." He added that he sat next to Grall at the seminar coincidentally and had apologized to her for any discomfort caused by the incident.

Another judge on the same appeals panel, Stephen Skillman, also wrote to Poritz about Mathesius' discussion of Fletcher in a different seminar where he was in attendance, the certification says.

As for LaVecchia, she wrote for the court in State v. Harris, 181 N.J. 391 (2004), which upheld Mathesius' ruling denying post-conviction relief to a convicted murderer but called his opinion in the case "outrageous, sarcastic and pejorative." During their meeting, Poritz also criticized his opinion, Mathesius says.

"Inasmuch as the Chief Justice has already expressed Her Honor's opinion of my conduct in connection with Judge Grall, and that both the Chief Justice and Justice LaVecchia already expressed their views of my conduct in the Harris matter, I respectfully suggest that their continued participation would be inappropriate," Mathesius says in his certification.

"It is clear to me that the Chief Justice, in her supervisory role, received information about me prior to the initiation of the present charges, and therefore outside of the administrative record," he says. "Given the scope of the Chief Justice's duties, it is, of course, inevitable that this information would come to Her Honor's attention. However, insofar as it did so other than as part of the record on appeal, the provision of that information to the Chief Justice and her personal observations create a perception of unfairness."

Mathesius declined to comment, and his lawyer, Arnold Lakind of Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein, Blader & Lehmann in Lawrenceville, could not be reached.

The recommended six-month suspension -- half without pay -- would be the harshest meted out to a Superior Court judge this decade. The ACJC had considered a full six months without pay but said that since Mathesius has spent most of his life in public service, going without a paycheck for that long could be onerous. Handler said Mathesius is intelligent, hard-working and fair but prone to speaking his mind when he is angry or frustrated.

Known as Wild Bill in his days as Mercer County executive in the 1980s, Mathesius lost his first nomination to the bench, in 1996, due to concerns about his intemperate statements. He had said that Sen. Shirley Turner's call for a scandal-free government during her 1986 campaign for freeholder was like "a hooker calling for clean streets" and once called a freeholder who challenged his position on an issue a "Democratic dog."

He was renominated in November 2001 by Acting Gov. and Senate President Donald DiFrancesco and was appointed on Jan. 11, 2002.

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