December 11, 2018
Digest: A town justice may serve on a committee that examines and reviews laws in relation to the merger of another municipality into his/her town.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B)(6); 100.3(B)(8); 100.4(C)(3); Opinions 15-188; 13-09/13-52; 07-155/98-31.
A town justice asks if he/she may, at the town supervisor’s request, serve on a committee to examine and review laws of one municipality as it dissolves and becomes a “unit of government” in the town where the judge presides. The purpose of the committee is, essentially, to harmonize the laws of the two jurisdictions, “and make suggestions on any reform that may be necessary.” The judge is not an attorney, and would be sharing his/her perspective and experience as a judge rather than providing legal advice to the committee. The judge’s jurisdiction includes both the dissolving municipality and the town.
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]). For example, a judge must not engage in impermissible ex parte communications (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]) or publicly comment on pending or impending cases in the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]). Nonetheless, judges may serve on entities “devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system or the administration of justice” (22 NYCRR 100.4[C]) and may make recommendations for such improvements (see e.g. Opinion 13-09/13-52).
Inasmuch as service on this committee is unlikely to involve the judge “in partisan political issues or on matters of great public controversy that are likely to raise reasonable questions about a judge’s ability to be fair and impartial” (Opinions 15-188; 07-155/98-31 [finding similar pitfalls in a charter review commission]), such service is permissible.