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Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington v. Conda

Decided: November 30, 1978.

BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS OF THE COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ELTON A. CONDA, SURROGATE OF THE COUNTY OF BURLINGTON, DEFENDANT



Lenox, A.j.s.c.

Lenox

"No county * * * shall * * * give any money * * * to or in aid of any individual * * *." N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, ยง III, par. 2.

By its complaint for declaratory judgment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:16-50 et seq. , plaintiff Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington seeks guidance as to whether it has the obligation or discretionary authority to reimburse defendant Surrogate of the County of Burlington for legal fees incurred in his defense of disciplinary proceedings

before the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct and the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Now before the court is plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and there being "no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged" the question may be determined as a matter of law. R. 4:46-2; Judson v. Peoples Bank and Trust Co. of Westfield , 17 N.J. 67, 73-75 (1954). See Evid. R. 3.

Complaints against defendant in his capacity as Surrogate of Burlington County were received and investigated by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct which was established by the Supreme Court of New Jersey pursuant to R. 2:15 to assist the court in fulfilling its administrative responsibilities and to implement the statutory provisions relating to proceedings for the removal of judges. Following a full hearing the committee found that defendant, in his capacity as surrogate, had engaged in improprieties proscribed by the Code of Judicial Conduct. Because of the absence of a definitive ruling on the status of surrogates and the standard of conduct applicable to them, the committee recommended the censure of defendant rather than removal from office. Acting upon that recommendation the Supreme Court issued an order directing defendant to show cause why he should not be publicly censured for his conduct.

The complaints investigated by the committee comprised six separate occurrences or series of occurrences. The committee dismissed four categories of allegedly improper conduct but determined that as to two others the complaints were substantiated and that defendant had engaged in conduct violating Canon 2 A of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Supreme Court concurred and censured defendant. In re Conda , 72 N.J. 229 (1977). Defendant was represented by counsel at all proceedings before the committee and the Supreme Court. Counsel fees and costs of $6,511.62 were incurred in connection with his defense of these proceedings and defendant has presented to plaintiff a formal claim for full reimbursement.

The two categories of prohibited conduct for which defendant was censured by the Supreme Court require separate consideration. The first involved the alteration by defendant of the designation of bank depositories contained in orders entered by County Court judges by the substitution of the names of banks selected by defendant, resulting in deposits being made in such banks rather than in those specified in the orders. The second involved the use by defendant of his county employees and office facilities for political purposes.

Defendant was censured as a judicial officer.

It is thus apparent that the surrogate is a judicial officer performing important judicial functions in our court system. From that standpoint it is appropriate and in accord with sound public policy that he be held to be a judge, and subject both to the administrative oversight of the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court * * * and to the strictures of the Code of Judicial Conduct so far as not necessarily inconsistent with his constitutional status as an elective officer. (In re Conda at 234)

The parties agree that disciplinary proceedings for judicial misconduct in office are sui generis -- neither civil nor criminal in the usual sense. R. 2:15 provides a "detailed mechanism for supervision of judicial conduct, the investigation of accusations of judicial impropriety, and the disposition of judicial misconduct." Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules , Comment R. 2:15. Specifically included within this section are judges of the surrogate's court. R. 2:15-8.

The conduct of members of the bar and judges of courts of the State is governed by the Disciplinary Rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility and the Code of Judicial Conduct of the American Bar Association, as amended and supplemented by the Supreme Court. R. 1:14 and Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules , Appendix to Part I. The purpose of disciplinary proceedings under R. 1:20 for ethical violations by attorneys is the protection of the public, purification of the bar and prevention of recurrent deviations.

In re Loring , 73 N.J. 282 (1977). The conduct of disciplinary proceedings for judicial misconduct is analogous to that for handling complaints of ethical violations against members of the bar. See Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules , Comment R. 2:15. Correspondingly, the Supreme Court's responsibility to keep the house of the law in order extends to ...


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