Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit delivered two stinging benchslaps of Judge William J. Martini (D.N.J.). The benchslaps were delivered in two different cases by two separate three-judge panels, but both opinions vacated rulings by Judge Martini and also directed that the cases be reassigned to new judges on remand.
Ouch. As noted by the Newark Star-Ledger, “[i]t amounted to an extremely rare and harsh rebuke of a well-known federal judge who once served in Congress.” (Before he was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, Bill Martini served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives; he ran for re-election but was defeated.)
What did Judge Martini allegedly do to incur the wrath of the Third Circuit? And what did the opinions have to say about His Honor?
There were two opinions: United States v. Kennedy, authored by Judge Michael Chagares, and United States v. Bergrin, authored by Judge Kent A. Jordan. The defendant in the Bergrin case is no stranger to Above the Law readers: he’s the notorious Paul Bergrin, famously dubbed by New York Magazine “The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey.”
Bergrin once worked as a federal prosecutor for the District of New Jersey. Now he’s being prosecuted by his former office, accused of such crimes as witness tampering, drug trafficking, tax evasion, and murder for hire — which is impressive!
Here’s some background on the Bergrin case from the Star-Ledger:
For months last fall and winter, prosecutors in the highly charged murder trial of Paul Bergrin had squared off with the presiding judge, complaining about the jurist’s alleged bias in favor of the once-prominent defense lawyer. They even accused Judge William Martini of saying behind closed doors that he would have acquitted Bergrin in a murder trial that had just ended in a hung jury.
Martini, in turn, took umbrage, castigating prosecutors for their accusations.
There’s a history of strained relations between the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark and Judge Martini (who once served as an assistant U.S. attorney in that office, back in the 1970s). Most notably, the office was not pleased with Judge Martini’s handling of the prosecution of former Newark mayor Sharpe James, which culminated in Judge Martini giving James a 27-month prison sentence — a much lower sentence than the 20 years requested by the prosecution. Judge Martini said he was “shocked and disappointed” by that sentencing request, and he assailed the U.S. attorney’s office for handling the James case “heartlessly.” Then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie condemned the lowball sentence and said his office would appeal.
Judge Martini won that round (James ultimately served just 18 months in prison), but the U.S. Attorney’s Office has definitely gotten its revenge. In the Bergrin opinion, Judge Jordan noted that reassigning a case to a different judge on remand “is an extraordinary remedy that should seldom be employed” — and then proceeded to do just that.
In a nutshell, the Third Circuit concluded that Judge Martini botched his analysis of the RICO statute. As Judge Jordan wrote, “It is not a court’s prerogative to construct a detour around RICO simply because the court is uncomfortable with how that statute may ‘significantly alter the way trials are conducted in cases that involve racketeering acts committed by members of an enterprise.'” He proceeded to note that “in light of the District Court’s statements — both before and after the earlier appeal in this case — about a perceived unfairness in trying the various witness-tampering counts together, we believe that the Court’s ‘impartiality might reasonably be questioned.'” Hence, reassignment.
The Third Circuit also ordered reassignment in Kennedy. In that case, according to the appeals court’s opinion, Judge Martini committed multiple transgressions….