The Strange Case of Steve Smoger

By Thomas Hauser
Steve Smoger (pictured refereeing Hopkins vs Trinidad) is universally recognized as one of the best referees in boxing. In recent years, he has also been a municipal court judge in Ventnor, Margate, Port Republic, and Pleasantville, New Jersey. Therein lies the quandry.

Two years ago, the New Jersey State Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct filed a complaint charging Smoger with judicial misconduct. Smoger resigned his judgeships. The Advisory Committee continued its proceeding and, after a hearing, determined there was "clear and convincing" evidence that Smoger was guilty of four different types of misconduct:

The first finding against Smoger was that he had improperly issued bench warrants to defendants who came late to court and illegally set bail for defendants in cases he presided over. Among other things, this led to a $142,000 settlement being paid to a man who was wrongly arrested on a criminal warrant issued by Smoger after he arrived five minutes late for a court appearance. Another plaintiff received $50,000 in settlement of a lawsuit because Smoger inadvertently put him in jail for ninety-four days after he accidentally rode a bicycle into a cop. Smoger inaccurately filled out a court form with a guilty plea that resulted in the man being improperly incarcerated.

"I ran a conservative court," Smoger says in response. "When a defendant arrives late, it keeps the arresting officer from going home to his family and costs the taxpayers extra money for police overtime. Where the first settlement is concerned, I later lifted the warrant but there was a clerical error. In the second instance, I made a mistake. When I was a judge, I worked four days a week in four different courts. I saw hundreds of defendants each week. Mistakes happen."

Second, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ruled that Smoger had violated a court rule that bars municipal judges from practicing law in penal matters by serving as a prosecutor for the Atlantic City Board of Alcohol Beverage Control.

"Maybe I was remiss in not seeking an opinion from the Advisory Committee on that one," Smoger acknowledges. "I reviewed the statutes prior to taking my job with the Board of Beverage Control, and I determined that my duties there would be administrative rather than penal in nature. I suppose there was an error in my review, although reasonable minds can differ on the applicable opinions and case law."

Third, where the sweet science is concerned, Smoger refereed professional boxing matches in violation of a specific directive from the New Jersey Supreme Court that he stop. On July 29, 1992, the administrative director of the New Jersey court system had advised Smoger in writing of a Supreme Court directive that, as a municipal judge, he could no longer referee professional fights. Smoger ignored the order. Thereafter, the administrative director sent Smoger a letter stating that he had been observed refereeing a professional boxing match and asked for an explanation. Smoger's response was evasive and misleading. He wrote back that the reporting party must have been watching television and seen "a re broadcast of a professional match that I officiated [before the court's directive]."

Smoger later changed his explanation and stated in writing that he had understood the prohibition to apply only to boxing matches held in Atlantic City casinos and that he had "fastidiously" followed that portion of the directive. However, the prohibition clearly was not limited to fights in Atlantic City casinos. And more to the point, records showed that, subsequent to being advised of the prohibition, Smoger refereed thirty-one professional boxing matches in New Jersey, nine of which were in Atlantic City casinos. Confronted with this evidence, Smoger acknowledged that he had knowingly violated the directive. "It was all with complete knowledge," he conceded. "In the pit of your stomach, [you know that] you're doing something that's not quite according to Hoyle. But you do it and you hope that nobody knows. I thought I could slip through . . . I wanted to ply my trade. I love boxing and saw the situation through my own rose-colored glasses. My desire to referee clouded my judgment."

Here, it should be noted that boxing is Smoger's passion, but there was also considerable financial incentive for him to keep refereeing. He has been paid as much as $7,650 to referee a single fight.

The fourth finding against Smoger was that he had violated a state law that precludes judges from receiving compensation other than their salaries for the performance of official duties. The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct ruled that Smoger had indirectly received compensation for officiating over marriages by recommending that newlyweds make donations to an organization called the Hiltner Foundation. The Hiltner Foundation is not an officially registered or public charity. Rather, it is a fund that was set up by the Margate city clerk and the mayor's secretary to pay for the education of their deceased brother's children. Also, there was at least one instance where a New Jersey resident pled guilty to driving with a suspended license and Smoger reduced the fine that had been imposed against him by $100. More than coincidentally, the motorist had made a $100 contribution to the Hiltner Foundation at his wedding a day earlier.

It was also alleged that Smoger learned in his capacity as a municipal court judge that the Margate Police Department was conducting a drug investigation of Maria Hiltner (wife of the Margate city clerk) and alerted the clerk's sister as to the existence of the investigation. However, the Advisory Committee found that this charge had "not been proved by clear and convincing evidence."

After issuing its findings, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct made a formal presentment to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In it, the committee requested that Smoger be barred for life from serving as a judge. Among other things, the presentment stated that Smoger had demonstrated "an egregious and persistent pattern of total disregard for judicial ethical obligations" and called him "a dishonest person totally indifferent to the standards governing judicial behaviour."

In July 2002, the New Jersey Supreme Court followed the Advisory Committee's recommendation and barred Smoger from the bench for life. It then referred its file on him to the State Office of Attorney Ethics to determine what action should be taken against Smoger as an attorney now that he was no longer a judge.

In October 2002, Richard Engelhardt (counsel for the State Office of Attorney Ethics) asked the State Supreme Court Disciplinary Review Board to reprimand Smoger. A reprimand is the strongest penalty that can be administered against a lawyer short of suspension or disbarment. Smoger's attorney asked for the lesser penalty of an admonition.

In December 2002, the State Supreme Court Disciplinary Review Board agreed unanimously that Smoger should be reprimanded. The New Jersey Supreme Court heard argument on the recommendation in April 2003. One month later, it formally reprimanded Smoger.

The legal profession has now dealt with Steve Smoger's transgressions. The remaining issue is, "How should boxing deal with Steve Smoger?"

Smoger loves boxing. Some of his fondest childhood memories are of staying up late at night with his father to watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on television. He boxed in a YMCA youth program ["It was more like physical conditioning," he says] and competed in intramural boxing matches at college. After graduating from law school, he put in four years as an associate with a small law firm in New Jersey. In 1975, he joined the office of the Atlantic City prosecutor. In 1992, he was designated a municipal court judge.

Municipal judges in New Jersey work part-time. They handle civil ordinance violations and small criminal matters. By 1994, Smoger was serving simultaneously as a municipal judge in Margate, Ventnor, Pleasantville, and Port Republic. Meanwhile, he had become increasingly involved with the sweet science.

Smoger's active participation in boxing began in the early 1970s when he served as a timekeeper, judge, and referee for the Police Athletic League. In 1978, casino gambling arrived in Atlantic City and boxing came with it. "One afternoon," Smoger recalls, "I was at the PAL center, and Jersey Joe Walcott called. He was chairman of the New Jersey State Boxing Commission, which was what they called it back then. There were fights scheduled for that night and Walcott said, 'We're shorthanded. Is there anyone at PAL who can help out as an inspector?'"

Smoger volunteered and, for the next five years, worked as an inspector. In 1983, he was granted a provisional referee license. "Those were the glory years for boxing in Atlantic City," he remembers fondly. "Don King was promoting here. Bob Arum was promoting here. Don Elbaum had a show every week at the Tropicana. One year, we had something like 163 fight cards in New Jersey."

Meanwhile, Smoger was moving up the ladder. His first world title fight was a 112-pound IBF championship bout in South Korea in 1986. Since then, he has refereed fifty major championship contests, including Roy Jones versus Bernard Hopkins, Hopkins versus Felix Trinidad, Holyfield-Ruiz III, Mosley Forrest I and, most recently, Vassiliy Jirov against James Toney. At various times, he has been named Referee of the Year by Ring Sports, Boxing Scene, and Flash magazines. In 1995, he placed second to Mills Lane in a poll conducted by Boxing Illustrated to designate the world's "best referee."

But Smoger's legal difficulties have cast a cloud over his boxing future. He is currently licensed to referee fights in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and at Foxwoods (which is run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe). However, at least one of these jurisdictions intends to review his status in light of recent court rulings. Last year, the New York State Athletic Commission requested that Smoger voluntarily relinquish his license (which he did rather than face suspension). And when his license to referee fights in his home state of New Jersey expired on July 1, 2002, his request for renewal was denied. He will be eligible to reapply on July 1, 2003.

Meanwhile, outside the ring, Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo Langford has appointed Smoger to the position of city solicitor (lead attorney) for Atlantic City. In that role, he supervises a staff of eight attorneys and nine support personnel.

So to repeat the question: "How should boxing deal with Steve Smoger?" Given his recent judicial record, if he were applying for a referee's license for the first time today, the application would be denied. But it's hard to overlook Smoger's history of sustained excellence in the ring. For two decades, he has been a superb referee. His skills and instincts are excellent.

There was one moment when Smoger's performance did raise a few eyebrows. On March 6, 1999, Lou Savarese fought Lance Whitaker in Atlantic City. Savarese hit the canvas twice. The second time, discretion being the better part of valour, he showed little inclination to rise. Smoger gave him a bit more time and a bit more encouragement than some onlookers thought appropriate. Savarese rose at what seemed to be the count of nine-and-three-quarters and went on to win the fight.

Still, Smoger is widely thought of as fair and unbiased. People in boxing know that certain referees favor the house fighter, but that's not the case with Smoger. Fighters and trainers trust him far more than they trust most referees.

Those who support Smoger continuing as a referee argue that his wrongdoing was unrelated to boxing, except to the extent that he continued to referee fights in violation of an administrative order. They say that the court directive was unreasonable in that it was based on the premise that refereeing "degraded the integrity and impartiality of the bench." They also cite Mills Lane, the much-respected former district attorney and judge, who was allowed, indeed urged, to referee fights by the State of Nevada. Moreover, Smoger's defenders say, there is a paucity of world-class referees. As a practical matter, boxing needs Steve Smoger.

But there's a contrary argument that can be made. Those who oppose Smoger returning to the ring state that only in boxing would this be a difficult issue. Smoger might be the best referee in the country right now, they acknowledge. But the fact that he's an excellent referee doesn't excuse his misconduct. Society needs standards and accountability. And where character is concerned, there shouldn't be one set of standards for highly competent officials and another set for officials of average competence.

It's essential that a referee in boxing represent total integrity. Personal integrity must be in place before skill becomes a factor. And the fact that a person has demonstrated a lack of integrity in one area of his professional life can't be isolated from other areas; particularly when each of the areas involves a public trust. A referee is asking the participants in a fight and the public to trust him, just as a judge asks trial participants and the public for their trust.

It's sad, the argument continues, but if a judge acts in such a questionable manner on the bench, can boxing trust him to be completely honest? In a big fight where millions of dollars are at stake? In small club fights where few people are watching? Moreover, disagreements and controversies are inevitable in boxing. In the past, few people have questioned Smoger's integrity in the ring. But now, there's a legitimate concern that any future controversy that involves him as a referee will focus on his prior misconduct. Suppose the boxing world had known of Smoger's judicial problems at the time of Savarese-Whitaker? Allowing Smoger to continue refereeing, the argument closes, will undermine public confidence in boxing and bring the sport into further disrepute.

So what's the proper resolution?

Boxing is a cesspool. Promoters have admitted paying bribes to world sanctioning organizations. Too many state athletic commission officials are corrupt. Conflicts of interest are taken for granted. To single out Steve Smoger for a permanent ban would be unfair and hypocritical. Boxing accepts, and at times extols, much worse conduct.

In the ring, Smoger has carried out his duties with distinction and honor. Still, he has been found guilty of significant wrongdoing. These are not mere technical violations, and they should not be ignored.

Smoger is not now under suspension in any state. Rather, he has relinquished his license in one jurisdiction and it has expired in another. That might not be a bad course of action to follow across the board. Then, after a decent interval, Smoger should be allowed to reapply for a license to referee in each jurisdiction and welcomed back into the fold.

Thomas Hauser can be contacted at
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