N.J. justice faces fallout after high school dispute

He is accused of ethical misconduct stemming from a school dispute.

Posted: July 11, 2007

TRENTON - The high school dispute that led to an embarrassing ethics complaint against New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto appears over.

But the legal case winds on, as Rivera-Soto awaits whether his fellow justices will punish him over accusations that he improperly used his title to help his son in a dispute with the captain of the Haddonfield Memorial High School football team.

Meanwhile, the team captain, Conor Larkin, has notified Rivera-Soto that he may file a tort-claims lawsuit against him.

In the notice, which the Supreme Court received June 26, Larkin says the high court justice "wrongfully filed and pursued criminal charges" against him "resulting in embarrassment, damage to his reputation and other injuries and damages."

Larkin accuses Rivera-Soto of "abuse of process, malicious prosecution, frivolous litigation, obstruction of justice, judicial conspiracy and use of position to advance private interests."

He says he may seek $500,000 and says the incident has caused him "emotional and psychological distress, damage to reputation" and resulted in lost opportunities for college scholarships and admissions.

J. Ward Larkin, Conor Larkin's father, said yesterday he believes that the dispute wrongly impugned his son's character, which may have resulted in the 18-year-old losing some football scholarship opportunities.

Bruce P. McMoran, Rivera-Soto's attorney, said the action was highly unusual because, he said, tort-claim notices are generally issued when public entities are to be sued, not individuals.

Rivera-Soto had only filed a complaint against Conor Larkin, said McMoran, and "in general, you cannot sue someone for filing a complaint against you."

Meanwhile, Charles Rand, the presiding judge of Camden County Family Court, released a transcript of the Family Court hearing in the boys' case, in response to a motion by The Inquirer and the Star-Ledger of Newark. Rivera-Soto did not oppose the motion.

Rand's order stipulated that the newspapers could not identify the boys by name. The Inquirer is identifying them because it has done so in previous stories. Conor Larkin is identified by name in the tort claims notice, and McMoran has previously confirmed that Rivera-Soto's son's name is Christian Rivera.

The transcript indicates a June 19 deadline – the date of Larkin's graduation from Haddonfield Memorial - for the case to be dropped if there was no further trouble between the boys.

Yesterday, both Ward Larkin and McMoran said there had been none. Ward Larkin said he had filed a motion with Family Court to dismiss the case.

The case began when Rivera-Soto accused Conor Larkin of harassing and striking his son, who also played on the Haddonfield football team. Ward Larkin has denied the allegations.

The Dec. 15 hearing was the climax of the high school dispute that spiraled into the legal system. And the transcript shows that Rivera-Soto dominated the hearing. He had signed the initial complaint on behalf of his son.

The hearing officer, Rick Alston, addressed Rivera-Soto as "Your Honor." Also present were several Haddonfield students who had been called to testify, as well as two top Haddonfield school officials.

Introducing the vice principal, Rivera-Soto said, "now I'm drawing a blank."

"Robert Paul," the vice principal said.

"Robert Paul, that's why, it's two first names," Rivera-Soto replied.

Both sides told hearing officer Alston that they had agreed the boys would avoid all further physical and verbal contact.

Rivera-Soto noted that the school district had agreed to help separate the two. "If that requires the juggling of locker location or the like, they will do so, again with a standard of reasonableness."

The justice said the boys had agreed to give each other "wide berth."

But Alston wanted to know: "And did this agreement, does it extend to maybe at night to mutual parties and stuff like skatin' rinks, movies?"

Rivera-Soto replied: "They don't socialize in the same circles, Your Honor."

The hearing officer said: "Sometimes things happen. They could be at the same movie together, his friends. . . . "

Then an attorney for the Haddonfield School District spoke. Michael E. Heston, of the high-profile law firm Capehart Scatchard, said that the school would do what it could to prevent interaction between the two boys, perhaps even as far as "scheduling on transit through various hallways and stairwells."

"They just need to stay away from each other. It's that simple," Rivera-Soto said.

"Right – and the friends," Alston said.

"And the friends," Rivera-Soto said. He said he hoped that "people understand that those are the rules of the game, and if they violate the rules then we will be back here."

Yesterday, Ward Larkin said it was "100 percent ludicrous" that the case ended up in court.

Rivera-Soto has acknowledged contacting the Haddonfield police chief, the acting Camden County prosecutor, and judges in the case, including Rand. After the ethics complaint against him was filed in May, Rivera-Soto apologized for his actions, but said he only wanted his son to be left alone.

He is now waiting to learn whether and how he will be penalized by the high court. Possible penalties range from censure to removal from office.

A judiciary spokeswoman yesterday said there was no deadline or time line for the decision, which will be made by Rivera-Soto's fellow justices.

To read the transcript of the Family Court hearing, go to

Contact staff writer Elisa Ung at 609-989-9016 or eung@phillynews.com.

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