June 14, 2012
Digest: If a judge of a local justice court concludes that his/her court is not adequately included on either the Unified Court System's website or on the local municipality's website, the judge may create and maintain an independent website for the justice court itself, subject to certain limitations.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.3(B)(8); 100.3(E)(1); 100.5(A)(1); Opinion 10-172.
A part-time judge who presides in a local justice court states that the municipality's website does not contain any information concerning the judge's court.1 In response to the judge's inquiries, municipal officials have indicated that they "have neither the time, the resources, nor the inclination to enhance or maintain their Internet presence." Under these circumstances, the judge asks the Committee to reconsider its prior Opinion 10-172 and permit a judge to create an independent judicial website so that he/she can convey information about the court to the public "in a cost-effective and dynamic manner."
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary's integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge must not use the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]) and must abide by certain speech limitations, including the prohibition on public comment on pending or impending cases in the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]) and a general prohibition on political activity except where expressly permitted (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]).
However, a judge may make public statements in the course of his/her official duties and may explain for public information the procedures of the court (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).
For the reasons stated in Opinion 10-172, the Committee adheres to this opinion which advises that a judge should not maintain his/her own individual "judicial website" which is personal to the judge (see Opinion 10-172).
Under the circumstances presented here, however, where the judge's court is not included on the Unified Court System's website (see http://www.nycourts.gov) and the municipality is unwilling or unable to provide useful, accurate, and up-to-date information about the local justice court on its own website, a judge may create an independent website for the justice court as a whole, but not a personal judicial website specific to him/herself (see Opinion 10-172). To avoid the appearance that the judge is using the prestige of judicial office to advance his/her own private or political interests by maintaining an independent justice court website, the judge must make every effort to include similar information for him/herself and all of his/her co-judges, if any (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]; 100.5[A]).
The judge's independent justice court website may include legal information such as court hours, the court calendar, biographical information about all judges of the court, downloadable forms, links to the Unified Court System website and/or other official (non-political) government websites, and any other relevant factual information (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B] [a judge may explain for public information the procedures of the court]). The website must comply with the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and, thus, among other things, must not include content which could cause the judge's impartiality to be reasonably questioned (see generally 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]; 100.3[E]); must not provide legal advice or otherwise promote private interests (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]); must not comment on pending or impending cases in the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]); and must not provide links to any politically sponsored websites, including the campaign website or election materials of any judge (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]).
Finally, the judge must also take reasonable steps to ensure that his/her justice court website will not mislead members of the public into assuming that the justice court website "is 'official' and has the imprimatur of the Unified Court System" (Opinion 10-172). For example, the judge could submit the design and content of the proposed website for review and approval by the district supervising judge for town and village courts before going live, and follow the supervising judge's instructions about how to label the website in a manner that is not misleading. As another example, the judge could clearly state on the home page that the justice court website is maintained personally by the judge without oversight by the Unified Court System. The Committee believes that if the judge adopts either of these suggested alternatives, the public will be adequately protected; however, any other reasonable measures would also be permissible.
1 The judge states that the municipality’s website contains no links and provides very little information about any of the municipal offices; and even then, some of the information displayed is erroneous.