Opinion 18-156


December 11, 2018

 

Digest:         (1) A town justice need not object to the town’s video security cameras, where the cameras have no microphones or audio capabilities, do not intrude into the courtroom or otherwise improperly interfere with court operations, and do not permit monitoring inside the judge’s chambers. (2) If the town attempts to re-install a camera in the courtroom, the judge should object in writing and notify an appropriate administrative or supervising judge. (3) The judge may, if he/she chooses, petition town officials to restrict access to the video cameras and/or ask them to transfer the monitoring and control functions to court personnel.

 

Rules:          Judiciary Law § 4; 22 NYCRR 29.1; 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B)(2); Opinions 17-73; 17-32; 14-114; 98-150.


Opinion:  


         A town, allegedly as a security measure, has installed video cameras at the multi-purpose building that houses its court. The cameras record video images, but without audio capabilities. Also cameras were placed at the entrance, outside perimeter, and holding cell. A camera behind the clerk’s payment window shows the court clerk and anyone on the other side of the window. Another shows the corridor leading to the judge’s chambers. None of the cameras offers a view inside chambers.


         At a court administrator’s request, the town removed a camera initially installed in the courtroom. However, the town maintains exclusive control over the system and declines to transfer the “monitoring and control capability” to court personnel. The town supervisor can and does review the live video feed and thus observes the court clerks working at the payment window and the judge and others entering or leaving chambers. The judge is uncomfortable with this surveillance and asks if the town’s monitoring and control of the video cameras violates any standards of judicial ethics.


         A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge also must respect and comply with the law (see id.) and require order and decorum in proceedings before the judge (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B][2]).


         Though court rules prohibit audiovisual recordings anywhere in a courthouse without administrative approval (see 22 NYCRR 29.1), we see no reason why the town, as owner of a multi-purpose building, cannot take facially reasonable steps to ensure public safety.1 Courtrooms in New York are ordinarily public places (see Opinion 98-150, citing Judiciary Law § 4). The payment window is likewise a space where court personnel interact with the public. Even the corridor outside the judge’s chambers (though not the chambers itself) may be publicly accessible. The town court clerks, though court employees, are paid by the town and work on town property using town equipment. Clearly, the town’s use of video cameras to observe the town court clerks while they interact with the public at the payment window and to observe people entering or exiting chambers does not violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. Nor does the town’s decision to have exclusive control of the cameras it installed result in any ethical violation by the judge.

  

         Judicial integrity is at the heart of our legal system. But simply because court staff and judge can be seen on a video camera network does not normally create an actual or apparent ethical impropriety. Indeed, we can only assume that superior court judges who work in county-owned courthouses are routinely observed on security cameras in their comings and goings by state or county employees. As described, the judge can still deliberate privately, review confidential documents, and confer privately with court personnel in chambers without audio or video monitoring or interference by other branches of town government (cf. Opinion 17-73). Nor do the described video cameras impinge on the judge’s authority to direct and control court operations (cf. Opinion 17-32). On these facts, we believe this judge has no obligation to object to the town’s video security cameras.


         The town first installed another camera in the courtroom, which was removed at a court administrator’s request. We believe the judge should object in writing and notify an appropriate administrative or supervising judge if the town attempts to re-install a camera in the courtroom (cf. Opinion 14-114).


         Finally, we note the judge may, if he/she chooses, petition town officials to restrict access to the cameras and/or ask to transfer monitoring and control of the cameras to court personnel.


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         1 Part 29 broadly prohibits all photography and audio/videorecording “in a courthouse including any courtroom, office or hallway thereof, at any time or on any occasion, whether or not the court is in session,” absent appropriate administrative approval (22 NYCRR 29.1[a] [emphasis added]). Here, it appears that court administrators, on becoming aware of the cameras, objected only to the camera in the courtroom. As noted, we also understand the building is not exclusively devoted to court operations.