On Tuesday, April 11, 2023, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct recommended the Supreme Court of New Jersey publicly reprimand Michael J. Kassel, a judge on the Vicinage 4 Superior Court, for admitting his ignorance of family law.

The case is entitled “In the Matter of Michael J. Kassel,” with case no. 2021-286.

The charges cited Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 1, rule 1.1 and Canon 2, rule 2.1, Canon 3, rule 3.2 and 3.4 which states:

Requires judges to participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing, and to personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity, impartiality, and independence of the judiciary are preserved.

Requires judges to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

Requires judges to maintain professional competence in the performance of their judicial duties.

Requires judges to maintain order and decorum in judicial proceedings.

On April 19, 2022, a formal complaint was filed against the respondent alleging four counts of misconduct pointing to the judge’s failure to wear his judicial robes while appearing virtually with his legs propped up on the desk in front of the parties. Furthermore, it was alleged in the formal complaint that the respondent expressed a fundamental lack of understanding of family law, failed to fully review the parties’ submissions, failed to maintain appropriate order and decorum, and demonstrated a bias that necessitated his recusal.

The filing states:

“The respondent when addressing the issue of parenting the time during a virtual court proceeding, to the litigants and their counsel that he “knew very little the applicable laws” having not served in the Family Division for two decades and having removed that which he may have from his mind. Respondent compared his involvement in the matter before him to that of a cardiologist seeing his first patient. Finally, Respondent remarked that he had not read all of the documents and did not understand which he had read but agreed to hear the matter if counsel would ‘ ‘walk [him] through their issues step by step” and “treat [him] like I’m a ninth grader in high school.”

The filing continues:

“The complainant repeats the allegations contained in the foregoing paragraphs as if each were set forth fully and at length herein. When presiding virtually over M.N. v A.R. EID-04-1325-20 on June 2, 2021, Respondent appeared in the courtroom with his feet propped up on the desk and without his judicial robes.”

Counts three and four of the complaint included the respondent’s prior professional association with the defense counsel thereby creating a conflict of interest. While count four includes the judge’s adjournment of the matter based solely on the respondent’s impression that the plaintiff’s counsel had an unstated concern about the respondent’s potential partiality for defense counsel given the latter’s involvement in the respondent’s drunk driving case.

On April 27, 2022, the respondent filed a verified answer admitting that his comments concerning his lack of experience in the Family Division indeed failed to maintain the high standards required of judges and failed to promote public confidence in the judiciary.

The filing further states:

“Respondent further states that while his comments were inappropriate, they were usually coupled with stating the reason for disclosing same, and Respondent would also usually say he would “do his best” and request that he be 0walked through the motions” so he would have a better understanding of same. Respondent was well aware that most of the Family Practitioners that appeared before him knew that he was not a regular Family Division judge.”

For count three, the respondent denied the allegations and argued that there is authority for the proposition that even an erroneous failure to recuse is a legal error and not a form of judicial misconduct.

The filing additionally notes:

“Respondent further notes that the situation did not present facts of which there is either a rule or statute that specifically covers the same. Neither attorney had any objection, after the disclosure was made, and Respondent specifically stated that before we go any further with anything in regard to the case, does anyone have any questions or concerns [indecipherable] I want everyone to feel comfortable with what I do or don’t do in the case. Does anybody have anything they want to ask me or put on the record?” There were neither objections nor questions. Respondent further notes that pursuant to rule 3.17(B)4(f), my law clerk from any past year can appear before me even though he/she knows far more about me personally and professionally, and for one year was closer to me personally and professionally than any lawyer who might appear before me, including of course the attorney in question.”

For count four, the respondent denied the charges and respectfully pointed out that he did not state that the sole reason for relisting the hearing was the plaintiff’s counsel’s unstated concern about the respondent’s impartiality. And according to the respondent, an audiotape can reveal that the respondent stated he is inclined to grant the said request for a new listing.

Following the verified answer, the committee found out later on that counts one and two have been proven by clear and convincing evidence while counts three and four have been dismissed.

The committee stated that the respondent’s remarks as set forth in count one constitute a complete departure from the ethical standards to which all judges must adhere, as they undermine the integrity of the Judiciary and the judicial process, and trivialize the parties’ legitimate interests in seeking redress with the court. Moreover, the respondent’s unfamiliarity with the applicable precedent and statutory law governing family part matters, failure to read in full the parties’ moving papers, and professed inability to understand that which he had read irretrievably diminished the efficacy of the judicial office.

For count three, the committee mentioned that given the intervening passage of time and the absence of any evidence in the record indicating that the respondent maintained an ongoing professional or personal relationship with defense counsel, the committee recommended the dismissal of the said charge. And lastly, for count four the court argued that the respondent, contrary to his earlier denial of a conflict or its appearance gave credence to an inference of partiality he raised, and thereby undermined his determination that no conflict or appearance of one existed.

Based on the foregoing facts and the documentary evidence, the committee concluded that the most appropriate recommendation is the imposition of a public reprimand.

The Recommendation states:

“For the foregoing reasons, the Committee recommends that the respondent be publicly reprimanded for his misconduct.”

Judge Kassel’s courtroom is located at 71 Monument St, Freehold, New Jersey 07728, and can be reached at (732) 677-4300. His info can be found on ballotpedia.org.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.