LINDEN – On Monday the state Supreme Court had harsh words for a former city municipal judge stemming from a 2010 case the judge presided over, labeling the trial a “miscarriage of justice.”
The 42-page decision by the state’s highest court left little unsaid when it came to how retired judge Louis DiLeo of Westfield handled the case that eventually contributed to his being removed from the municipality’s bench.
Despite the harshness of the decision, the state’s highest court merely issued a reprimand, failing to impose any sanctions against DiLeo. The ruling will, however, go on his permanent record.
In the decision, the seven member panel made it clear the defendants, Wendall and Anthony Kirkland, “were the victims.” They blamed DiLeo for this, slamming the municipal judge for his legal mistakes.
“He committed legal errors to the degree and kind that call into question judicial competence and cast a pall over the judiciary as a whole,” said the state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision. This echoed a lower court decision in late 2011 by Union County Superior Court Judge Scott Moynihan, who said DiLeo acted as a “backwater” judge, jury and executioner. The Supreme Court also noted that “the egregiousness of these errors – indeed the misconduct that occurred here – had the clear capacity to undermine public confidence in the dignity, integrity and impartiality of the judicial system in this state.”
The question of whether DiLeo’s “legal error” merited discipline or not was addressed, with the state’s highest court ruling that a legal error that is “egregious, made in bad faith or part of a pattern or practice has the capacity to detrimentally affect public confidence in the judicial process.”
“That concern must drive the determination of whether legal error rises to the level of misconduct under the code and requires the imposition of discipline,” the Supreme Court panel added.
The case surfaced after the Kirklands appeared in municipal court before DiLeo. They were charged with stealing a vehicle and possession of marijuana. According to transcripts from the case, the cousins allegedly tried to steal the wheels from a car in 2009.
Although the cousins wanted to defend themselves against these charges and had witnesses willing to testify on their behalf, the municipal judge ended up prosecuting the case himself, and even questioned the Kirklands himself while they were on the stand. They also were never given the opportunity to have a public defender, even though they requested this legal help.
After a trial that lasted an hour, DiLeo found the pair guilty and sentenced Wendall to 180 days in the county jail with no possibility of parole and Anthony to a year without the possibility of parole. The two appealed the decision and the cousins were given bail after 124 days in jail. Later a superior court judge found the two were not guilty of the marijuana charge and the charges were downgraded to a lesser offense.
In his own defense DiLeo addressed these complaints by emphasizing the “enormity” of the municipal court’s docket at the time, explaining he was not attempting to prosecute the case but merely moving the court’s calendar along. The state’s highest court did not agree, pointing out that “the court’s concern about judicial backlog never trumps the protection of a defendant’s constitutional rights.”
However, because the state Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct said the municipal judge violated the judicial code of conduct during the May 2010 trial, Linden Mayor Rich Gerbounka asked DiLeo to resign in November 2011.
DiLeo, though, refused to comply. Eventually the mayor and council were able to remove the municipal judge earning in excess of $140,000 a year from the bench, bringing in someone who did the job for half that number.
DiLeo may no longer be earning the salary he did as a city municipal judge, but he is pulling in a $49,000 a year state pension that he earned from his 25 years as a municipal judge and prosecutor.
However, DiLeo turned around in January 2013 and filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, seeking to have the charge against him and the subsequent ruling that he committed a “perversion of justice” removed. The move, though, backfired and the Supreme Court had harsh words for the former municipal judge’s behavior, but no sanctions, which surprised Gerbounka.
“I thought the decision by the Supreme Court was a bit lenient,” said the mayor Tuesday, adding that considering the language in their brief, a public reprimand was not what he expected.
DiLeo was unavailable for comment.