Opinion: 99-46

March 11, 1999

Digest: A town judge should not serve as a member of a Domestic Violence Community Coordinating Council, which engages in vigorous advocacy on behalf of domestic violence victims.

Rule:  22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(A);
           100.3(B)(1); 100.4(A)(1); 100.4(C)(3);
           Opinions 95-34 (Vol. XIII); 96-96 (Vol. XIV).


            A town judge inquires whether the judge may be a member of a Domestic Violence Community Coordinating Council ("Council"). Relying on this Committee's Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XIV), the judge concluded that he/she should refrain from such participation because the Council appears to be engaged heavily in advocacy on behalf of domestic violence victims. The Council has asked the judge to reconsider serving as a member, and refers to this Committee's Opinion 95-34 (Vol. XIII). The Council also contends that it is an inter-agency domestic violence council or task force serving many agencies such as law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, health care, batterer's programs and victim service agencies, and is not an advisory board to any particular agency. The judge notes that the participation of judges attending Council meetings fosters better community relations and that the absence of judges may lead to "judicial bashing." Reference is also made by the judge to the "clear advocacy tone" of the group.

            There is, in our view, no conflict between Opinions 95-34 (Vol. XIII) and 96-96 (Vol. XIV). In Opinion 95-34 (Vol. XIII), there was nothing in the material presented to the Committee to indicate that participation in that particular domestic violence task force might cast doubt on the judge's impartiality or that the organization was anything other than an organization devoted to the improvement of the legal system. But, in Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XIV), the organization dealt specifically with the victims of domestic violence and had as its goal the providing of services to such victims. Its counselors appeared in court, and the district attorney had begun a program to require that victims who wish to withdraw the charges receive counseling from the organization. Those kinds of connections between the organization, victims, prosecutors and court led the Committee to conclude that the judge's service to the group might well cast doubt on the judge's impartiality in violation of section 100.4(A)(1) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct.

            We fully recognize, of course, that the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct allow for judicial participation in a wide variety of organizations. Section 100.4(C)(3) of the Rules provides:

A judge may be a member or serve as an officer, director, trustee or non-legal advisor of an organization or governmental agency devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system or the administration of justice . . .

            The Committee has previously advised that such service is to be encouraged. However, the pivotal issue is often whether the judge's participation casts doubt on the judge's impartiality. Generally, a judge may participate as a member of an organization devoted to the improvement of the legal system, as in Opinion 95-34 (Vol. XIII). But, as in Opinion 96-96 (Vol. XIV) where a stated goal of the organization is to provide services to victims of domestic violence, the judge should not participate. Here, the fact that the Council vigorously advocates on behalf of domestic violence victims gives rise to the possibility that the judge's impartiality might reasonably be called into question, notwithstanding the fact that the group provides services to a variety of agencies.

            In addition, section 100.2 of the Rules state that "A judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities," and that "A judge . . . shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." 22 NYCRR 100.2(A). It is, therefore, our view that to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the judge should refrain from such participation.

            The Committee fully appreciates that the participation by judges in the work of the Council may be of substantial service to the community and foster good community relations. However, "The judicial duties of a judge takes precedence over all the judge's other activities" (22 NYCRR 100.3[A]), and it is this latter consideration that must guide the judge.

            With regard to the issue of "judicial bashing," the Committee reminds the judge that "A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interest, public clamor or fear of criticism." 22 NYCRR 100.3(B)(1).