March 19, 2015
Digest: A magistrates’ association may publicly support a resolution urging a legislative change to assist local taxpayers in funding their local justice courts.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(C)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(iii); Opinions 14-139; 14-135; 12-109; 10-147; 07-109; 06-34; 98-05; 93-78.
A part-time judge, who is an officer of a magistrates’ association, asks if the association may publicly support a resolution titled “Increase Justice Court Funding.” The resolution, prepared by an association of municipal officials, calls for the New York State legislature to amend the General Municipal Law. The proposed amendment would increase the amount of money reimbursed to towns and villages for processing Vehicle and Traffic Law tickets, “in order to assist local taxpayers in funding justice court operational expenses.”
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2), must always promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]), and must not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). Both full- and part-time judges may appear before a legislative body on matters concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C]), and may even, subject to certain limitations, engage in limited political activity “on behalf of measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice” (22 NYCRR 100.5[A][iii]; see also Opinion 14-139 at n.3).
Accordingly, the Committee has previously advised that a judge may write to and lobby legislators about legislation that directly concerns the law, the legal system or the administration of justice (see Opinions 10-147 [rights of defendants before the justice courts]; 98-05 [an association of judges may engage a lobbyist to represent its members in advocating legislation concerning the law, the legal system and the administration of their courts]; see also generally Opinion 14-139 [discussing prior opinions]). In addition, the Committee has advised that a judge may publicly advocate for improved court facilities (see Opinion 14-135), may advocate for passage of a bond resolution to fund a new court facility by writing an op-ed article for publication in the local press, by speaking at public informational forums before the vote, and by advocating publicly in favor of the need for the new court facility (see Opinion 07-109), and may write a letter in support of a municipality’s application for a grant to improve the overall safety and accessibility of the municipal facility that houses the court and the court clerk’s office (see Opinion 12-109).
Here, the judge wishes to support a resolution urging New York State to return a greater share of the revenue from Vehicle and Traffic Law tickets to towns and villages in order to increase funding of the justice courts. This impacts the administration of justice in justice courts (see e.g. Opinions 14-135; 12-109; 07-109).
Accordingly, it is ethically permissible for the magistrates’ association to publicly express its members’ position on the resolution (see e.g. Opinions 14-135; 12-109; 06-34; 93-78).