Reasonable Judgment Applies to Judges Too
The case attached to this blog involves two judges, one of the Superior Court, and one of the City of Paterson Municipal Court. The judges regularly attended Mass and a weekly dinner after Mass with an individual who later came under indictment for official misconduct based on using his public position to have public employees work on his home at the expense of public resources. At the time these charges came to surface the group had been meeting for after-Mass dinners for a decade and one judge had been friends with the individual for fifty years. In 2012 while the group were meeting for their weekly dinner a member of a local Republican organization noticed the two judges sitting with the indicted public official and reported this behavior to the Lieutenant Governor. This case was referred to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC).
Based on a past case In re Blackman (where a judge chose to attend the party of a convicted criminal) the Committee found that the behavior of the judges in this case may weaken public confidence in the judicial system. This standard imposes a duty on the judge to foresee that his actions might be open to criticism if he/she socializes with convicts or those under investigation. However other jurisdictions apply a reasonability test and this standard has now been adopted in New Jersey. the test is whether a respondent’s personal behavior could cause a reasonable observer to question the judges’ impartiality. Because the standard was changed in this particular case and the two judges both had impeccable records the ACJC chose not to sanction them. However the opinion stressed that similar behavior in the future under the current standard would warrant disciplinary action. The opinion did not specify exactly what kind of action this would be. The point the ACJC stresses is for judges to use common sense. The Committee does not expect a judge to admonish their friend of decades simply because he/she has been indicted, but social interactions should be conducted in private in that kind of situation. It is crucial that the public have confidence in the judicial system and even if judges can separate their personal and work lives, it may wrongly appear that a judge is endorsing an individual’s innocence, or even worse delegitimizing the judicial system if they are seen in public with someone facing criminal prosecution. When in doubt contact the ACJC and ask.
It should be noted this latter point is true for most ethical boards, whether it be Medical, Dental, the Bar, or any other professional ethical or licensing board with the ability to sanction. When in doubt contact the board that applies to you to avoid life-altering disciplinary actions later.
Read the entire case, here.