Plaintiffs sought recusal of assigned trial judge based upon alleged violation of "objectively reasonable" standard of impropriety set forth in DeNike v. Cupo, 196 N.J. 502 (2008) based on the alleged personal animus of the judge against plaintiffs’ counsel. Before becoming a member of the judiciary, the judge had been a candidate for local office in his town approximately 14 years prior. Plaintiffs’ counsel was a member of the opposite party and also resided in the same town and was politically active. Plaintiffs’ counsel alleged that anonymous and other sources had indicated the judge held him responsible for campaign materials which called into question the judge’s character and fitness for office during the campaign in 2004. Plaintiffs’ counsel alleged the judge, when he was county chairman, took action to thwart his renomination to a state commission in 2013 four years before joining the judiciary, which was alleged to evidence the judge’s personal animus. Additionally, the judge had also served as county chairman of his political party for the 6 years prior to joining the judiciary. During this time, the son of the principal member of plaintiff LLC was an elected official in the judge’s home town and a member of the judge’s opposite party during which time the judge, as county chairman, had supported the members of his own party over the principal member’s son.
The court held that, under the DeNike standard, a reasonable, fully-informed person would not have doubts about the judge’s impartiality under the circumstances in this matter. The court considered the lack of a prospective financial benefit to the judge, the remoteness in time of the alleged statements by the judge to the present matter, the lack of evidence of a continuous personal animus, the professional dealings between Plaintiff’s counsel and the judge when he was a practicing attorney, and the fact that Plaintiffs’ counsel’s firm, of which Plaintiffs’ counsel was a named partner, had previously appeared before the judge without objection or incident, all weighed against recusal under the standard. The court also found political motive is not objective evidence of personal animus. The motion to recuse was denied.