Judge Apologizes for Courtroom Rant, Says He Meant Well





New Jersey Law Journal

September 07, 2010

Superior Court Judge Max Baker, who last December launched into a tirade against a pro se litigant that an ethics tribunal calls "disrespectful and insulting," has apologized for his behavior. But he says he acted out of his "desire to do justice to children."

Baker, in his Aug. 26 answer to a disciplinary complaint filed Aug. 4 by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, says his remarks to litigant Dana Pilla were intended to be "didactive [sic] and instructive in imparting to Mrs. Pilla that denying Mr. Pilla's access to their child would in the long run prove detrimental to the child."

He adds, "While the message should have been imparted more cordially and patiently, it was a heartfelt message with the hope of doing justice to the family, not to demean either of the litigants."

Baker says he has apologized to Pilla in writing, which "represents the unconditional recognition of the inappropriateness of his behavior."

Baker, represented by Northfield lawyer Mark Biel, largely confirms the ACJC's version of the facts.

On Dec. 31, Baker, then presiding family judge in Atlantic County, was hearing cross-complaints by Pilla and her husband, Michael, both of whom appeared pro se, for restraining orders. After granting Pilla's request for an adjournment to obtain counsel, Baker asked about the couple's minor child and visitation. On learning the husband had not seen the child for more than a week, he set a temporary visitation schedule.

According to the ACJC, when Pilla expressed concern about the schedule, Baker became irate, screamed at her, accused her of being a bad parent and threatened her with incarceration if she disobeyed his order concerning visitation, the ACJC said. He made further remarks, again in a very loud and harsh tone, that "created an appearance of or a reasonable belief that he was not objective and impartial," the ACJC added.

Baker disputes the committee's account that he became irate with Pilla, screamed at her or gave cause to question his impartiality in the case. He also denies that he accused Pilla of being "a bad parent" but said that "upon reflection ... [he] acknowledges that his words could have been so interpreted."

Baker says his remarks did not indicate he had prejudged the case. Rather, his reaction came out of a duty to do justice to children, "who often have no one else to protect them other than the court under the court's parens patriae authority when one parent attempts to keep them from the other parent."

Saying his "perception comes not only from years on the bench but from years of private practice," Baker says: "The continuing use of a child by one parent as a weapon and the resultant estrangement between that child and the other parent is devastating to children who grow up thinking that is how relationships normally exist."

The ACJC says Baker violated Judicial Conduct Canon 3A(3), which requires that judges be "patient, dignified and courteous to all those with whom they deal in an official capacity." The complaint also says he violated Canons 1 and 2A of the code by failing to maintain high standards of conduct and by not acting in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Baker denies violating those canons.

Baker has a reputation for poor demeanor, according to the New Jersey Law Journal's most recent Superior Court Judicial Survey, published last year.

In the category of courtesy and respect to litigants and lawyers, lawyers graded Baker 4.76 on a 1-to-10 scale -- the lowest score in the Atlantic-Cape May vicinage and 349th out of 350 judges statewide. His overall score of 6.63 was also dead last in the vicinage.

Baker did not return a call about the ethics case. Biel, of Biel, Zlotnick and Feinberg in Northfield, was on vacation this week and could not be reached.

Baker, 64, was appointed by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in 1998 and was granted tenure in 2005. He was transfered from the Family Part to the Criminal Part last July 1, though the judiciary says the move was not necessarily related to job performance.