Joint Opinion 07-185, 08-68, 08-77
April 24, 2008
Digest: (1) A Town or Village Justice may, subject to all applicable statutory provisions concerning confidential information or sealed records, share information with members of the public, the media and the parties who appear in the court that he/she compiles for his/her own use to facilitate court operations, including a court calendar showing details of cases that may be heard on a particular court night and a court calendar showing the dispositions of cases heard on a particular court night. The Justice should not, however, include in such calendars the addresses and dates of birth of the parties; (2) A Town or Village Justice may, subject to all applicable statutory provisions concerning confidential information or sealed records, present a monthly status report to his/her town or village board at a public board meeting and distribute copies of such report to anyone who requests a copy, including the media.
Rules: Judiciary Law § 255-b; UJCA 2019-a; Town Law Sec. 31; 22 NYCRR 100.1, 100.2(A); Opinions 07-115; 00-65; 96-111 (Vol. XIV).
Three Town Justices inquire separately about the ethical propriety of providing a copy of the court’s calendar to the local newspaper, the District Attorney’s office and/or the Public Defender’s office. The specific questions are as follows: (1) Is it ethically permissible for a town justice to give a copy of the court calendar showing the names and addresses of the parties and the dispositions of their cases to the local newspaper? (2) As the Committee has previously advised that it is ethically impermissible for a judge to create, maintain and/or produce information about court cases specifically and exclusively for the benefit of the District Attorney’s office (see Opinion 07-115), is it ethically permissible to do so for the District Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s office and anyone else who would want such information? (3) Is it ethically permissible for a town justice to prepare a court calendar showing details of cases that may be heard on a particular court night, six days in advance, and send it to the Assistant District Attorney, the Public Defender and, if scheduled to appear, the Public Advocate? The third inquirer further indicates that privately retained counsel “is advised as well” but is not provided with the entire calendar. The third inquirer also asks if it is permissible to provide copies of case status summaries that he/she prepares monthly on a spreadsheet to track the status of cases pending in his/her court to the Town Board at its monthly public meeting and to anyone who requests a copy, including the local media.
The Committee has previously advised that a court should not provide a court calendar that lists the defendants’ names, addresses, birth dates, and any sentences imposed to the local newspaper to ease a reporter’s chore in searching police records or to generate positive “public relations” (see Opinion 96-111 [Vol. XIV]). The Committee has also advised that a judge should not, at the District Attorney’s request, provide the District Attorney with a list of all open cases pending in the justice court at least once per month or to provide the District Attorney with a schedule or court calendar for each assistant district attorney night/day at least one week in advance to assist them in preparing for their court appearances. These opinions expressed the Committee’s view that the court, in providing the requested assistance and/or information, risked compromising the independence and impartiality of the judiciary (see 22 NYCRR 100.1; 100.2[A]; Opinion 07-115; 96-111 [Vol. XIV]).
Pursuant to Judiciary Law §255-b, a court’s docket book must be kept open during the business hours fixed by law for search and examination by any person. And, with respect to town and village justice courts, section 2019-a of the Uniform Justice Court Act provides that the records and dockets of the court, except as otherwise provided by law, shall be at reasonable times open for inspection to the public. Given these statutory provisions, the entities named by the inquiring judges could learn the information that would be provided in the court calendars and monthly reports that the inquiring judges describe simply by visiting the courts’ offices and diligently searching the courts’ records. That is not to say, however, that visiting a courthouse and searching a court’s records should be the only means by which to obtain information about the court’s business.
Clearly, a court should not prepare, maintain and/or produce information about court cases specifically and exclusively for the benefit of any particular party, person, or entity (see Opinion 07-115; 96-111[Vol. XIV] ). However, that does not preclude a judge from sharing - with members of the public, the press, and the parties who appear in the court - information that the judge compiles for his/her own use and to facilitate court operations. In fact, to do so may be the best use of the limited resources available to justice courts. Otherwise, much or most of a court clerk’s time, or the time of a judge who serves in those courts without a court clerk, could be taken up with facilitating access to court records. Further, in the Committee’s view, there is no risk of compromising the independence and impartiality of the judiciary - nor the appearance thereof - to do so. In fact, providing such access in the manner in question is wholly consistent with the statutory provisions requiring court records and dockets to be open to reasonable public inspection (see Judiciary Law §255-b; Uniform Justice Court Act § 2019-a).
It is the Committee’s view, therefore, that the inquiring town justices may share copies of a posted calendar of scheduled cases and posted or otherwise publically available documents addressing case dispositions (subject to all applicable statutory provisions concerning confidential information or sealed records), as requested by the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the media, other interested persons, and members of the general public. Such calendars should not, however, include any defendants’ addresses or dates of birth (see Opinion 96-111 [Vol. XIV]).
This opinion responds only to the ethical propriety of the actions proposed by the inquiring Town Justices. This opinion does not mandate - nor should it - that all justice courts must prepare and provide documents that are the same as or similar to those described by such inquiring Town Justices. In addition, the Committee reiterates that it is best, whenever reasonably possible, for non-judicial personnel, rather than the judge, to assist media representatives in obtaining copies of documents filed with the court or judge, in accordance with governing statutes and rules (see Opinion 00-65).
Finally, as Town and Village justices must present their records and dockets to their boards at least once annually (see Uniform Justice Court Act §2019-a; Town Law §31), a Town or Village justice may, but is not required to, present a monthly status report to his/her town or village board at a public board meeting and distribute copies of such report to anyone who requests a copy, including the media.