December 3, 2015
Digest: The Committee cannot comment on any legal questions. However, if applicable law permits judges to delegate authority, to accept guilty pleas and set fines, to court clerks who serve in a municipality’s traffic violations bureau, then it would also be ethically permissible for the judges to delegate that authority under the applicable statutory scheme.
Rules: General Municipal Law §§ 370-373; Judiciary Law § 212(2)(l); 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B); 100.3(B)(7); 100.3(C)(2); 101.1; Opinions 15-127; 13-121; 08-02/08-45.
An administrative or supervising judge asks us to clarify Opinion 15-127, which refers to “judges who preside in municipalities where there is no traffic violations bureau or agency.” The judge says that, although some traffic violations bureaus are independent entities separate and distinct from the town and village courts, other municipalities may have legally authorized traffic violations bureaus that are actually subject to and supervised by the court (see generally General Municipal Law §§ 370-373). These bureaus are apparently created by municipal enabling legislation pursuant to the General Municipal Law. The inquiring judge indicates that sometimes applicable statutes authorize court clerks to accept guilty pleas and set fines on traffic infractions (excluding speeding and certain other offenses) pursuant “to a list of violations and fines for each offense.” These lists are annually pre-determined by the judges of those courts.
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 dispose of all judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]); diligently discharge his/her adjudicative duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]); and require staff, court officials and others under the judge’s direct control to observe the same fidelity and diligence applicable to the judge (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[C]).
The Committee cannot address questions of law (see Judiciary Law § 212[l]; 22 NYCRR 101.1; Opinion 08-02/08-45). Therefore, this Committee cannot determine whether these traffic violation bureaus were properly created under state and local law, whether they have the powers described by the inquiring judge, or if the “lists of violations and fines” are properly implemented.
However, assuming the traffic violation bureaus and lists have been properly and legally implemented in certain local courts, and further assuming the judges of those courts are legally authorized to delegate their judicial duties to court clerks in the manner described, there is no ethical impropriety for them to do so (see Opinion 13-121). In other words, if applicable law permits judges to delegate authority to accept guilty pleas and set fines to court clerks who serve in a municipality’s traffic violations bureau (a question on which the Committee cannot comment), then it would also be ethically permissible for the judges to so delegate that authority pursuant to the applicable statutory scheme.