TRENTON - New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto yesterday denied that he abused his position to influence a dispute between his teenage son and the captain of the Haddonfield Memorial High School football team.
Facing only the second ethical complaint against a high court justice since 1974, Rivera-Soto filed a response saying allegations that he played the "Do you know who I am?" card were taken out of context and that he wanted his son's case to be treated like any other.
Rivera-Soto, 53, added that when he was named to the bench in 2004, he told his three sons "that they would have to take a step back" in some difficult situations. Hence, he said, his 16-year-old son, Christian Rivera, did not retaliate in a dispute with the team captain, and it spiraled into the legal system.
"It was never his purpose or intention to influence the acts of anyone by reference to his judicial position," the response says of Rivera-Soto. "His intent at all times was to avoid any appearance of impropriety," and he regrets any misunderstanding.
Rivera-Soto admitted contacting the Haddonfield police chief, the acting Camden County prosecutor, and judges in the case. But, the response says, he did not mean to improperly influence them and in one circumstance wrote to a judge on personal letterhead bearing his name and home address.
J. Ward Larkin, father of the Haddonfield football captain, Conor Larkin, said yesterday that the justice's response was that of "a desperate man."
Rivera-Soto "appears to be stepping backwards to cover his missteps when he should have been using good judgment during the initial process," said Larkin, who complained to the state about Rivera-Soto. "He should have used the same good judgment he was instructing his sons to use."
Rivera-Soto's attorney, Bruce P. McMoran, said the justice would not be available for interviews.
The high court's Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed the complaint May 11, saying the justice "used or allowed the power and prestige of his office . . . to influence or advance the private interests of his family and his son."
In his response, Rivera-Soto says he allowed school officials to handle two incidents in which his son was harassed or assaulted by Conor Larkin, but went to Haddonfield police after a third time, in September, in which Larkin "deliberately head-butted" Christian Rivera in the mouth.
Ward Larkin said that the first two incidents never happened and that the third "occurred during a supervised practice with multiple coaches on the sidelines." It was ruled an accident by the school, according to the May 11 ethics complaint.
The complaint said Rivera-Soto told the football coach that in his "field," he often must make "critical assessments" based on "who has more to lose."
Rivera-Soto says he told the coach that as a longtime trial lawyer, he had to make "credibility determinations" that "most often hinge on who has more to lose from his or her story" and to consider this when evaluating the captain's denials.
The justice's response says that after the "head-butting incident," he called the Haddonfield police chief asking what to do, but added that he wanted to know how similar incidents were normally handled. He admitted giving his business card to a policeman.
Rivera-Soto's response denies that he referred to his position during subsequent calls with the school superintendent. It says the superintendent asked him "what his role was in the judiciary" after returning a call to his office.
It also says Rivera-Soto denies telling then-acting Camden County Prosecutor James 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. The complaint said that Rivera-Soto asked the employee "if she knew who he was, and handed her his business card."
The response says the employee, Elizabeth Ruiz, asked how to reach him, and he handed her his business card, intending not to influence her but to provide "a convenient method by which she could reach him during business hours."
The justice does say he called county Assignment Judge Francis Orlando about the lack of notice. When Orlando referred Rivera-Soto to Charles M. Rand, the presiding judge of the Superior Court's family division, Rivera-Soto's response says he wrote Rand a letter on personal letterhead and says Rand sent a response to Rivera-Soto's home, referring to him as "Mister."
The judiciary ethics panel will decide whether Rivera-Soto faces a hearing and possible penalties that range from a reprimand to removal from his seat.