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Panel throws flag on N.J. judge

It says he improperly helped son in dispute with teammate

NEWARK, N.J. - A state panel on judicial conduct on yesterday filed an ethics complaint against New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, charging that he improperly allowed the "power and prestige" of his position to help his son in a dispute with another teen on their high school football team.

If the six other justices on the state's highest court substantiate the complaint, they could remove Rivera-Soto from the bench or impose a lesser penalty, including a public reprimand, censure or suspension.

Rivera-Soto, the first Hispanic on the state Supreme Court, denies any wrongdoing, said his lawyer, Bruce P. McMoran.

"He acted as a father would act, and we don't think he did anything wrong," McMoran said.

The alleged misconduct stemmed from a series of incidents last fall between Rivera-Soto's son, a sophomore, and a senior who was the captain of the Haddonfield Memorial High School team. The justice's son said the other teen harassed or struck him, according to the complaint.

The school warned the other teen but took no other action. On Sept. 28, Rivera-Soto's son had his mouth hurt during practice when he and the other teen butted heads. The vice principal determined the incident was an accident. Rivera-Soto told the vice principal he was dissatisfied with how the official handled the matter and if no action were taken he would get state police involved and file a complaint.

That evening, Rivera-Soto called Haddonfield Police Chief Richard Tsonis on the chief's cell phone and said no one at the school was doing anything about an assault on his son. When a detective came to Rivera-Soto's home that night, the justice gave him his business card that named his office. The justice signed an assault complaint against the senior at police headquarters, the complaint said.

The next morning, Rivera-Soto alluded to his post during a call to School Superintendent Joseph O'Brien. The justice also spoke to the ranking judge at the Camden County Courthouse, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando, and asked that the matter be treated no differently than any other, the complaint said.

Rivera-Soto made the same request of Camden County Acting Prosecutor James P. Lynch that day, but also "asked the prosecutor to make certain that his complaint received attention," the complaint said. *