December 4, 2008
Digest: In the absence of any law, rule or administrative policy prohibiting a town or village justice from doing so, a town justice may permit the elected town clerk to receive fine payments during the day when the court is closed and also may perform such tasks associated with his/her judicial duties as sending out fine notices and addressing envelopes while at home.
Rules: Judiciary Law §212(2)(l); Uniform Justice Court Act §109; 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(C)(1); 214.2[a]; Opinions 08-177; 93-88 (Vol. XI).
A town justice who holds court only during evening hours asks whether he/she may permit the elected town clerk to accept court-imposed fine payments during the day when the court is closed. Occasionally, an out-of-town defendant will travel to the town court during the day to pay a fine, only to find the court closed. If no one else can accept the fine payment, he/she must return to the court again to pay the fine.
A judge must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). Therefore, a judge must "diligently discharge [his/her] administrative responsibilities without bias or prejudice” (22 NYCRR 100.3[C]).
In Opinion 93-88 (Vol. XI), the Committee advised that it is ethically permissible for a judge to delegate to his/her own clerical staff, or an appropriate custodial or police official, the ministerial task of counting cash that is tendered to the court as bail. In the Committee's view, "[t]o require judges personally to count posted cash bail in every instance would serve no legitimate end, and would be a grossly inefficient procedure, especially in courts with moderate or heavy caseloads" (id.).
The Committee is of the view that it is also ethically permissible for the judge in this inquiry to accommodate defendants who travel some distance to pay a fine during regular business hours by authorizing the town clerk to receive these payments. The judge's concern for out-of-town defendants is admirable and consistent with the goal of promoting the public's confidence in the integrity of the judiciary (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). However, the Committee notes that Uniform Justice Court Act §109 requires each court to have such non-judicial personnel as may be provided by the municipal board. The Committee cannot advise the inquirer as to the legality of his/her proposed procedure under this statutory provision or any other that might apply (see Judiciary Law §212[l]; Opinion 93-88 [Vol. XI]).
The judge also asks whether the judge may perform such tasks associated with his/her judicial duties as sending out fine notices and addressing envelopes while at home. The judge advises that the number of traffic infractions filed in the court has increased, and, by performing such tasks from his/her home, the judge will be better able to keep current with his/her excessive case load.
It is the Committee's view that the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct do not preclude a judge from undertaking these proposed administrative tasks at home, as long as the judge performs these tasks impartially and diligently (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[C]). However, the Committee cannot opine on any administrative restrictions, policies or guidelines on working from home, which are, of course, the province of the appropriate administrative authorities (see Judiciary Law §212[l]; Opinion 08-177) in light of their own governing rules (see e.g. 22 NYCRR 214.2[a] [public best served by justice courts which function in facilities provided by municipality]).