N.J. Officials, Pols Mute on Disparate Lewdness Sentences

N.J. Officials, Pols Mute on Disparate Lewdness Sentences

Senior New Jersey State officials and the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor there are making no comment on a Municipal Court judge who has given harsh sentences to gay and bisexual men who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to violating that state’s lewdness law in the Palisades Interstate Park, but gave a heterosexual couple a far lighter sentence after finding them guilty of having intercourse and violating other ordinances in the park.

Judge Steven J. Zaben, who presides over the park’s court, has given gay and bisexual men found guilty of lewdness there $1,000 fines, five-day suspended jail sentences, two years on probation, two-year bans from the park including use of the highway that runs it and, in some cases, court-supervised psychiatric counseling.

Typically, the men were arrested after they exposed themselves and, in some cases, briefly masturbated in front of a park police officer in the Palisades, which runs along the Hudson River’s west bank from the George Washington Bridge to Bear Mountain in New York.

Following a July 12 trial, Zaben found a heterosexual couple guilty of lewdness, having open alcohol containers in the park, and failing to turn on their car parking lights when parked.

He fined both the man and the woman $750 for lewdness and $200 each for the open containers, and the man was fined $54 for failing to use his parking lights. Zaben banned the couple from the park for two years. Neither received suspended jail sentences, probation or court-supervised counseling.

Unlike most of the men who have been arrested, the couple was having sex in the park. The two police officers who testified at the trial said the man’s erect penis and the woman’s vagina were visible.

On July 15, Gay City News sent an e-mail containing its most recent story on the park arrests and trials as well as the Web addresses for its two earlier stories to the press offices of acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, Peter C. Harvey, the state attorney general, and the state Supreme Court.

The newspaper sent the same e-mail to the campaign press offices for U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, the Democratic candidate for governor, and Doug Forrester, the Republican nominee.

The park judge is appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the State Senate.

All the e-mails asked for comment on the judge’s actions and gave a deadline for a response of 5 p.m. on July 19. The newspaper followed up that e-mail with at least two phone calls to each press office.

Harvey’s press office and the state Supreme Court press office said they would not comment. The campaigns for governor did not respond at all. Codey’s office responded on July 19 with a one-line e-mail that read, “We have not had the opportunity to comprehensively review the municipal cases referenced.”

Codey, a Democratic state senator, became acting governor when Democrat James E. McGreevey, the former governor, resigned following revelations that he was gay, had engaged in an extramarital affair with a man and had hired the man for an advisory post regarding homeland security last November 15. Codey will return to the State Senate as majority leader when the next governor is sworn in. Harvey, the attorney general, was appointed by McGreevey.

According to State Senate records, Zaben was appointed to a three-year term in 1998 by Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. He has not been reappointed to a second term.

“Although his term expired in 2001, he was not reappointed,” said Sean Darcy, a Codey spokesperson on July 20 after Gay City News asked for information on Zaben’s appointment. “He was held over. That is not an unusual judicial process.”

This also means that the governor can appoint a new judge for the park court at any time.

The park judgeship holds an anomalous position in New Jersey because most of the state’s 535 Municipal Court judges are appointed to three-year terms by the mayors of the towns in which they serve.

Gay groups often will not challenge lewdness laws—though some have in the past—because public sex activity is seen as embarrassing to the community. Those groups do generally insist that the laws be enforced equally, however. While gay groups denounced the disparate sentences last week, they had a muted response to the silence coming from the state’s political leaders.

“We just got over a major state budget battle and it really is possible that they have not reviewed it,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide gay organization. “On this one I give them the benefit of the doubt… I would have another few days of generosity.”

Goldstein managed Corzine’s 2000 U.S. Senate race and his organization has endorsed Corzine for governor.

Similarly, Michael Blake, president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, was inclined to be generous.

“I don’t find it odd that they don’t respond without reviewing cases or without reviewing objections,” he said. “That’s unfortunate, but it’s not that rare that campaigns and government offices don’t respond in quick fashion to every question especially when they are not certain how it’s going to play… The issue that we are dealing with is a difficult issue and I’m not at all surprised that people are reluctant to charge in.”

The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, do not yet have a local chapter in New Jersey.

More details are emerging about police activity in the park.

In a May interview with Gay City News, John J. Parr, chief of the Palisades Interstate Park police, said there was no effort on the part of his department to crack down on lewdness.

“What we do is we put officers in plainclothes,” Parr said. “They will look for narcotics activity, they will look for any other kind of activity going on. There is no specific detail. We’re just enforcing the statute.”

Testifying at a June 2 lewdness trial, Det. Thomas Rossi, who has made roughly half of the recent lewdness arrests in the park, said he was not specifically looking for lewdness violations when he made the arrest in that case, but he was patrolling in plainclothes for any infraction of the law.

But a June 10 news article on northjersey.com paraphrased Lt. Nelson Pagan of the park police saying, “his department has grown more aggressive in trying to weed out [lewdness] offenders. The 29-member force has put six officers on special plainclothes duty to patrol the park when the weather is inviting and manpower allows, up from two undercover officers in 2003.”

The article quoted Pagan saying “Last year we started very heavy… We had to keep up with the amount of people out there… It’s summer again and they’re going to be out there.”

The article said that police “have nabbed 37 people for lewd behavior in the park so far this year, and 95 in 2004. Police said most of those arrested were men ‘cruising’ alone, but some were heterosexual couples.”

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