September 15, 2011
Digest: A judge may not participate in a private meeting with the representatives of a local victims’ advocacy group, where the representatives’ stated goal is to educate the judge about the importance of the group and the group’s role in the community, and to establish a “mutually respectful relationship” between the organization and the court system.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B)(1); Opinions 10-61; 10-59; 10-13; 09-127; Joint Opinion 06-154/06-167; Opinions 04-91; 96-96 (Vol. XIV).
A judge who presides in matters involving defendants who are charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol asks whether he/she may consent to a request from the leaders of a local Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) program to meet with them. According to the organization’s website, MADD is a “victim services organization” which provides services to “drunk driving victims and survivors at no charge” and works “to protect families from drunk driving and underage drinking.” The invitation the judge received indicates that the purpose of the proposed meeting is to discuss “the importance of MADD and its role in the community,” as well as the organization’s concerns about “an increased and significant cultural change towards driving while under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. The letter further expresses a hope that MADD will be able to “establish a mutually respectful relationship between our organization and the  court system.” The judge states that the local district attorney would also like to attend the proposed meeting.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2), must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]), and must not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).
The Committee has previously advised that a magistrates’ association should not permit representatives from a town clerks’ association to attend their meeting for the purpose of discussing the enforcement of dog regulations to “ensure consistency between the various towns” (Opinion 10-61) and that a judge should not meet with the Chief of Police and the Commissioner of Public Works for the municipality where he/she presides to discuss the judge’s decisions to dismiss a number of parking tickets issued for illegal overnight parking (Opinion 10-13). A judge also may not appear at a heavily one-sided candlelight vigil for crime victims (see Opinions 10-59; 04-91) or serve as board member of a victim services agency (see Opinion 96-96 [Vol. XIV]). Similarly, the Committee has advised that judges should not participate in regularly-scheduled meetings with the representatives of a government agency which represents the interests of children and families, where the meetings involve discussion of substantive and procedural legal issues and do not include other agencies and parties representing other interests which are present in Family Court matters (see Joint Opinion 06-154/06-167).
Although MADD’s goals may be laudable, the organization appears to be heavily one-sided in nature, as it identifies itself as a victim support and advocacy group (cf. Opinions 10-59; 04-91; 96-96 [Vol. XIV]), and its goal in meeting with the judge seems to involve an attempt to promote a particular agenda in connection with the judge’s judicial decision-making in certain matters that will come before the judge (cf. Opinions 10-61; 10-13; Joint Opinion 06-154/ 06-167). Therefore, the judge should not accept the invitation to meet privately with the organization’s leaders under the circumstances presented.
In the Committee’s view, the District Attorney’s attendance at the proposed meeting does not warrant a different result. A private meeting involving the judge, representatives of MADD, and the District Attorney – without any legal representatives of defendants – would make the meeting even more one-sided and thus further exacerbate the appearance of impropriety (cf. Opinion 09-127 [court personnel should not participate in seminars or other extrajudicial events if they are so one-sided as to create an appearance of “improper alignment” by the court]).