Melanie Appleby, a family court judge in Ocean County, violated six ethics rules for state judges, including one that requires judges to disqualify themselves from proceedings in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
In 2012, Appleby sought help from Frank Louis, a lawyer with two cases before her at the time, to respond to a letter from her ex-husband seeking to terminate child support payments because their son was graduating college, according to a decision issued in September by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
Appleby and Louis met in the judge's chambers to discuss the letter, during which time Louis expressed concern about being disqualified from appearing before her because of a conflict of interest, according to the decision.
"Given these concerns, Mr. Louis offered to 'work something' out whereby he would assist (the judge) with the legal issues" raised by the letter, "while still maintaining his ability to appear before (the judge) on behalf of his other clients," the committee decision said.
Six weeks later, Louis sent a response to Appleby's ex-husband on letterhead of another law firm and with a forged signature, according to the committee. Only after that law firm objected did Louis declare he was representing the judge in the matter.
A complaint was filed with the committee by Appleby's ex-husband accusing her of engaging in a conflict of interest. The committee's finding said she acknowledged as much, but denied attempting to conceal it and denied violating any judicial rules.
The committee, however, disagreed, and the Supreme Court agreed with the findings.
"The evidence demonstrates, clearly and convincingly, that (the judge) failed to conduct herself in a manner consistent with these high ethical standards, and in at least one instance did so intentionally, for which public discipline is necessary," the committee wrote.