For suspension for one year -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. Opposed -- None.
[57 NJ Page 317] This is an ethics matter. Respondent, formerly Chief Judge of the Municipal Court of Newark, was charged with accepting fees or gratuities with respect to the performance of marriage ceremonies, contrary to the Canons of Judicial and Professional Ethics and the directive of our Court contained in Municipal Court Bulletin Letter No. 115 dated October 7, 1965. On December 3, 1969 the charge was referred for trial before a judge of the Superior Court as a master. Respondent resigned as judge
on December 8, 1969. After extensive hearings, the master filed a presentment and thereupon we issued an order directing respondent to show cause why he should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
Some background material should be noted. By N.J.S.A. 37:1-13 judges of the municipal courts are empowered to solemnize marriages. N.J.S.A. 2A:8-9 provides that these judges "shall be compensated by an annual salary" and that the "compensation so paid to magistrates shall be in lieu of any and all fees." Another statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:105-1, provides that any judge "who, by color of his office, receives or takes any fee or reward not allowed by law for performing his duties, is guilty of a misdemeanor." In 1965 we received word that some magistrates were accepting fees or gratuities for performing wedding ceremonies. We asked our Municipal Court Committee to ascertain by selective but confidential questionnaire whether that practice existed, and if so, the sums involved. The inquiry was conducted and the report indicated the practice was widespread but the total sums involved were quite low.
Having no doubt whatever of the impropriety of that practice, we directed the Administrative Director of the Courts to advise all judges accordingly and hence there was dispatched to all municipal court judges Municipal Court Bulletin Letter No. 115 dated October 7, 1965, which contained the following:
"The Supreme Court has requested me to advise all Magistrates and Judges that it considered it to be highly improper for them to accept a fee or gratuity for performing a marriage ceremony. The Supreme Court also is of the view that Court Clerks and other Court employees may not accept a fee or gratuity in connection therewith."
A committee of municipal court judges, consisting of the chairman of each county association of magistrates, asked to meet with the Chief Justice, and a meeting was held on October 22, 1965. A further meeting was held on February 15, 1966 by the committee and the entire Supreme Court. At
both meetings the municipal court judges sought a reversal of the view stated in the bulletin letter of October 7, 1965, but their request was refused, and indeed they were informed that there existed a disturbing possibility that the acceptance of a fee or gratuity might violate the criminal statute cited above.
In 1965 the Legislature sought to amend N.J.S.A. 2A:8-9, the compensation statute mentioned above, to add "but nothing herein shall limit the right of any magistrate to accept fees or gratuities in connection with his services in solemnizing marriages." Governor Hughes, however, vetoed that bill on June 3, 1968, saying in part:
"* * * Inasmuch as this measure would give official sanction to a practice which is of questionable propriety and which is contrary to the announced policy of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, I must withhold my approval therefrom."
The Governor quoted Bulletin Letter No. 115 and noted that the Supreme Court reaffirmed its position in a memorandum to the chairmen of the Magistrates' Association in November 1965 (after the meeting with the Chief Justice mentioned above). We add that the content of Bulletin Letter No. 115 was repeated in Bulletin Letter No. 148, dated June 27, 1968, also sent to all judges of the municipal courts.
With this background, we return to the present proceeding. Respondent became a judge of the Municipal Court on December 7, 1964, about ten months prior to Bulletin Letter No. 115. It is clear that respondent's predecessor as Chief Judge of that court had established a charge of $20 per marriage. Respondent says that his staff simply continued the practice until October 1969 when he says he first learned of the ban contained in Bulletin Letter No. 115 at the annual meeting of the municipal court judges held that month. Respondent said he had been too ...