September 10, 2009
Digest: A Family Court judge may visit a domestic violence shelter, but when interacting with shelter occupants, the judge must refrain from discussing court-related issues or pending cases.
Rule: 22 NYCRR 17.1; 17.1(4); 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B); 100.3(B)(1); 100.3(B)(6); 100.3(B)(7); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); Opinion 03-45.
A judge who is assigned to a custody, visitation and family offense part asks if he/she may visit a local domestic violence shelter to supplement his/her judicial education and training. The judge states that the shelter is run by a public interest organization. The general counsel of the organization, who is the judge’s personal friend, would arrange the visit. According to the judge, certain judges handling criminal matters are required to visit correctional facilities (see 22 NYCRR 17.1) and Family Court judges are similarly required to visit facilities for the detention of juveniles and psychiatric centers to which juveniles are referred (see 22 NYCRR 17.1). The judge notes, however, that Section 17.1 does not require judges to visit a domestic violence shelter. The judge further advises that the same agency that operates the shelter also maintains a public interest law firm that employs attorneys who sometimes appear in the judge’s court.
A judge must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities (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]). A judge must also be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).
In the Committee's view, a judge does not violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct merely by visiting a domestic violence shelter, particularly where, as here, the treatment provided to occupants of the shelter falls within the sphere of the judge's responsibilities in adjudicating domestic violence matters. The Unified Court System itself has designed programs and resources to assist victims of domestic violence in finding safety and support (see, e.g., http://nycourts.gov/courts/problem_solving/dv/home.shtml [accessed June 21, 2010]) and offers a domestic violence bench manual to outline a judge's role and responsibilities in this area (see http://nycourts.gov/ip/dv/ [accessed June 21, 2010]). The Committee concludes that, for a judge who handles family offenses, visiting a domestic violence shelter to which the judge may make referrals is primarily an educational opportunity relating to the judge's judicial duties (cf. 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]) and does not, in and of itself, create an appearance of impropriety (compare Opinion 03-45 [judge may not participate in a "ride along" program with the local police department]).
However, when interacting with shelter occupants or lawyers affiliated with the public interest law firm that appears in the judge’s court, the judge must keep in mind that many of these individuals may currently have matters pending in his/her court or could be involved in matters that will come before his/her court in the future. Accordingly, the judge must refrain from discussing court-related issues or pending cases or otherwise commenting on a pending or impending proceeding in the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]; 100.3[B]; 100.3[B]). The judge also should ensure that his/her conduct at the shelter does not cast reasonable doubt on his/her capacity to act impartially as a judge, detract from the dignity of judicial office, interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties or otherwise appear incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-). If the cautions expressed in this response render the judge's visit a practical impossibility, the judge should refrain from visiting any such shelter.