Joint Opinion 06-154 and 06-167
January 25, 2007
Digest: 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.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.4(A)(1); Opinion 06-108; Joint Opinion 00-54 and 00-56 (Vol. XIX); Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XV).
Two Family Court judges inquire separately about whether it is proper for judges to participate in regularly scheduled meetings with the County Department of Children, Youth and Families (hereinafter “the Department”). The judges explain that these meetings will be held in alternating months, and will include the Department’s Commissioner and other key personnel, including the Department’s legal staff.
One judge describes these meetings as a “collaborative effort” with the Department, which remains integral to the efficient daily operation of the court and to the development of successful Family Court programs and initiatives. The other inquiring judge notes, however, that these meetings will not include other county agencies, such as the Public Defender’s Office, the Conflict Defender’s Office, and the Law Guardian Panel. Further, in his/her view, these meetings will “delve into the substantive and procedural aspects of Court operations in terms of how child abuse and neglect petitions are processed, scheduled, and resolved by the Court.”
The Committee has previously noted that “a pivotal issue in all such matters is whether a judge’s participation would cast doubt on the judge’s impartiality.” 22 NYCRR 100.4(A)(1); Opinion 06-108; see also Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XV). While the discussion of issues and exchange of ideas about the operation of the court is certainly desirable, here that input would arise exclusively from regularly-scheduled meetings with only one executive agency, which represents only one set of interests before the court. Absent input from those representing other interests, these meetings may reasonably create an appearance that the Court is failing to consider other perspectives. While avoiding such appearances is important in all courts, it is especially so in courts like family court where emotions often run high and its judges decide not only the law, but the facts as well.
It is therefore this Committee’s opinion that judges’ participation in these meetings, in these circumstances, may well “cast reasonable doubt” on the judiciary’s impartiality, particularly where only one set of interests involved in Family Court matters is represented, and where attendees will participate in discussions of substantive and procedural legal issues. 22 NYCRR 100.4(A)(1); Opinion 06-108; Joint Opinion 00-54 and 00-56 (Vol. XIX).
We thus advise that Family Court judges only attend such meetings during consideration of purely administrative matters.