September 7, 2006
Digest: A judge should not serve as a member of a Domestic Violence Task Force that, among other things, seeks to promote “offender accountability.”
Rule: 22 NYCRR 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(1); 100.4(C)(3); Opinions 99-31 (Vol. XVII); 96-96 (Vol. XV); 95-34 (Vol. XIII).
A County Court judge inquires as to whether it would be proper to attend future meetings or to become a member of a local Domestic Violence Task Force. The judge’s inquiry includes a copy of the organization’s mission statement, which provides that its goal is “to increase victim safety and offender accountability by promoting and facilitating a coordinated community response of zero tolerance to domestic violence.” The judge is unaware whether anyone from the defense bar participates in the task force in any respect.
The Rules Governing Judicial Conduct permit a judge to be a member of an organization devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system or the administration of justice (22 NYCRR 100.4(C)(3)), so long as such membership does not cast doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially. 22 NYCRR 100.4(A)(1). Additionally, section 100.2(A) requires all judges to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. 22 NYCRR 100.2(A).
This Committee previously approved a judge’s participation in a domestic violence task force in Opinion 95-34 (Vol. XIII). In that opinion, the task force in question was comprised of members of both law enforcement agencies and public defenders, and the group’s focus was on the manner in which cases were handled, rather than on the prosecution of such cases or advocacy on behalf of victims of domestic violence who are involved in court matters.
In the present inquiry, although the Task Force consists of 110 representatives of various agencies, there is no indication that the Task Force includes members of the Public Defender’s office or any other defense representation; nor is there any explanation of the Task Force’s goal of promoting “offender accountability.” A pivotal issue in all such matters is whether a judge’s participation would cast doubt on the judge’s impartiality. Actively aligning oneself with an organization intended to promote “offender accountability” could readily cast “reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge,” in violation of §100.4(A)(1) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. See also Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XV). This Committee has also held that a judge should not participate as a member of a group working against violence, where the group intended to promote “abuser accountability.” Opinion 99-31 (Vol. XVII). The conclusion reached in Opinion 99-31 is directly on point with the present inquiry.
Accordingly, in light of the overall composition of the group’s membership and general focus, including the lack of defense bar representation and especially the Task Force’s stated intent to increase offender accountability, the Committee believes participation in this project by a judge who hears such cases could cast reasonable doubt on his/her impartiality as a judge. 22 NYCRR 100.4(A)(1). The inquiring judge, therefore, should not participate.