Rate Judge Joseph Portelli
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday [May 18] issued a public reprimand of Passaic County Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli, finding that he made inappropriate remarks to attorneys and witnesses who appeared in his courtroom.
The state’s highest court, however, dismissed other charges against Portelli in which the judge was accused of ethical violations by making several vulgar remarks and commenting to attorneys that child guardianship cases, which he was assigned to handle, were “long and boring.”
A public reprimand is among the milder sanctions that the Supreme Court could have imposed, including suspension or removal from the bench.
Portelli’s attorney, Ralph Lamparello, did not return two phone calls Wednesday.
The decision was issued following a recommendation by a state committee on judicial conduct, which initiated proceedings against Portelli last year. In its complaint against Portelli, the committee alleged that the judge once invited two attorneys from the state Attorney General’s Office into his chambers and made vulgar remarks as he complimented one of the attorneys for her aggressiveness.
In another count, the committee accused Portelli of complimenting an adoption worker’s manicure while she was testifying on the witness stand in the judge’s courtroom.
The committee also alleged that Portelli made an inappropriate remark to an attorney. In an effort to make children comfortable with his courtroom, Portelli often brings children behind the bench and allows them to play with his gavel. In one incident in 2013, he brought a child behind the bench, allowed the child to sit on his lap, and then said to a female attorney, “No, you cannot sit on my lap.”
At a hearing before the committee in April, Portelli said that he made those comments only after another attorney jokingly asked if he could sit on the judge’s lap. The judge, playing along with the wisecrack, said he told the attorney that he could not, and then told the female attorney that she could not sit on his lap, either.
The ethics committee on judicial conduct dismissed that count against Portelli, concluding that the judge’s comment “constituted an ill-advised attempt at judicial humor, which we trust [Portelli] will avoid in the future,” but does not constitute a violation of the judicial code of conduct.
The committee also found that Portelli said he found child guardianship cases to be long and boring. That showed “questionable judgment” on Portelli’s part, but did not amount to a violation of the judicial code of conduct, the committee concluded.
Portelli also denied that he complimented a witness during her testimony, and that he only made the comments during normal exchange of pleasantries, which was common among attorneys and others who regularly appeared in his courtroom.
The committee, however, found that the judge’s comments were inappropriate and that while not meant in a flirtatious manner, they still violated the code of conduct. It also concluded that Portelli’s vulgar comment to attorneys in his chambers violated the code.
Portelli was appointed to the bench in Passaic County in 2009. He served in the family division for several years until the ethics committee filed a complaint against him, after which he sought a transfer to another division. He now serves in the criminal division.
After seven years of service, Portelli, 60, must be re-nominated and approved by the state Senate to become a tenured judge so he can serve until the mandatory retirement age of 70. His renomination is scheduled for next month.
READ THE COMPLAINT BELOW:THE THE PORTELLI COMP