TRENTON - In only the second ethics complaint filed against a New Jersey Supreme Court justice in more than three decades, a state panel yesterday accused Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto of improperly using his position to influence a dispute between his son and the captain of the Haddonfield Memorial High School football team.
Rivera-Soto, 53, could face a hearing and possible penalties that range from a reprimand to removal from his seat.
Rivera-Soto last night told a reporter at his Haddonfield home that he had no comment. He has 20 days to issue a written response to the complaint.
The justice's lawyer, Bruce P. McMoran, said Rivera-Soto "acted like any father would, and he doesn't believe he did anything wrong." McMoran said he considered the accusations to be relatively minor and did not expect a heavy penalty.
McMoran noted that according to the complaint, Rivera-Soto had asked some officials to treat his son's legal proceedings like any other. "People are going to know who you are, but you don't want them to go out of their way for you," McMoran said.
The complaint, written by disciplinary counsel Candace Moody of the state advisory panel, says Rivera-Soto "used or allowed the power and prestige of his office . . . to influence or advance the private interests of his family and his son."
J. Ward Larkin, father of the Haddonfield football captain, Conor Larkin, said in an interview last night that he had sent the state a letter of concern and was subsequently interviewed by judiciary officials.
Larkin said Rivera-Soto was "pretending that my child was the bully. But the real bully is the father."
Larkin said that after the disagreements, "my son and his were playing next to each other. I don't think it was the kid."
The dispute started in September when Rivera-Soto's son, a sophomore on the football team, claimed that Conor Larkin harassed and struck him. After Conor Larkin received only a warning, Rivera-Soto called school officials to complain.
Rivera-Soto's son is referred to as "C.R." in yesterday's filing. According to the justice's biography, his middle son's name is Christian.
The justice told the coach, Frank DeLano, that in his "field," he often must make "critical assessments" based on "who has more to lose," according to the complaint.
After a later game in which the teenagers' heads collided, Rivera-Soto was unhappy that a school investigation determined that it was an accident. He told school officials that he would call state police if they did not act further.
Rivera-Soto then called the Haddonfield police chief on the chief's cell phone, saying he wanted to press charges against Conor Larkin. When a detective arrived at Rivera-Soto's home, according to the complaint, the justice handed him his business card, which noted his title.
Rivera-Soto later signed a criminal complaint for assault against Larkin, according to the complaint.
The day after the game, Rivera-Soto called Haddonfield school superintendent Joseph O'Brien to find out what the school was doing, and in subsequent conversations "referred or alluded to his judicial office," the complaint says.
Rivera-Soto also called Francis J. Orlando Jr., the assignment judge of Camden County Superior Court, and James P. Lynch, the acting county prosecutor. He told both about the complaint and requested that it not be treated differently than any other, according to yesterday's ethics filing.
But he also told Lynch "to make certain that his complaint received attention."
Two months later, the justice and his son appeared at the courthouse to attend a hearing, but were told by a court employee that it had been postponed at the Larkin family's request.
Rivera-Soto asked the employee "if she knew who he was and handed her his business card," the ethics filing says. He then called Orlando at his chambers twice to complain, and later sent a letter of complaint to Charles M. Rand, the presiding judge of the Superior Court's family division.
Superior Court later subpoenaed students, school administrators, teachers and coaches to appear at a December hearing. But the two families agreed during the hearing to dismiss the complaint if there were no further incidents between the teenagers by June 19.
Yesterday's filing says Rivera-Soto violated a number of court rules, one of which prohibits behavior "that brings the judicial office into disrepute."
A relatively unknown Republican who built his legal career representing casino giants, Rivera-Soto joined the high court in 2004.
The state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct has issued only one other complaint since it was formed in 1974 - a 1990 reprimand of Justice Robert L. Clifford in a drunken-driving case, according to a judiciary spokeswoman.