On a presentment by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in this opinion. Justice Clifford did not participate.
This is a judicial disciplinary proceeding. A formal complaint was filed with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct against the respondent, Michael R. Connor, Judge of the Superior Court. The complaint charged respondent with violations of motor-vehicle laws, namely, driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50; leaving the scene of an accident, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-129; and driving in a careless manner, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:4-97. The complaint also charged respondent with making false statements to the investigating police officer in connection with the charged motor-vehicle offenses. Respondent's conduct, according to the complaint, violated several Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as Rules of Court. Respondent filed an answer in which he admitted essentially all of the allegations of the complaint and sought to explain his actions.
The Committee conducted a formal hearing on the charges, during which it reviewed all of the evidence, including respondent's conviction based on a guilty plea to the charged offenses and the testimony of respondent and other witnesses. The Committee found by clear and convincing evidence that respondent was guilty of violating the ethical standards set forth in
the Canons and Rules. Finding mitigating circumstances, the Committee recommended that respondent be reprimanded.
The facts are not disputed. Respondent had been an Atlantic County Superior Court Judge since 1979. On Monday, April 16, 1990, respondent left the Atlantic County Courthouse and drove to his home in Linwood, arriving at approximately 5:00 p.m. There he consumed a significant amount of alcohol and subsequently decided to return some books to the library. While driving in a westerly direction on Ocean Heights Avenue in Egg Harbor Township, he failed to realize that the vehicle ahead of him was slowing down to make a left turn. Respondent attempted to go around that vehicle on the right, but his left front bumper struck the right rear of the vehicle. The respondent left the scene at a high rate of speed, substantially in excess of the fifty miles-per-hour speed limit. He turned right off Ocean Heights Avenue onto English Creek Road and turned right again onto Mill Road. Approximately two miles from the accident scene, respondent lost control of his vehicle, which left the road, struck some trees, and came to a stop in a wooded area.
The vehicle that respondent had struck was being driven by Holly J. Bennett, whose three young children were passengers. After being struck, Ms. Bennett followed respondent, catching up to him after respondent's car came to a final stop off the side of Mill Road. Several police officers soon arrived. Following a brief investigation at the scene, they arrested respondent. He underwent two breathalyzer tests, which produced blood alcohol levels of .17 percent and .16 percent, respectively. Respondent was charged with the motor-vehicle offenses recited in the complaint.
On April 23, 1990, respondent appeared before a Judge of the Superior Court and pled guilty to all of the charges. On the charge of driving while intoxicated, the court sentenced respondent
to a seven-month suspension of his drivers license, a fine of $300, and twelve hours attendance at an intoxicated-drivers resource center; on the careless driving charge, the court fined respondent $50; on the charge of leaving the scene of an accident, the court imposed an eight-month drivers-license suspension and a fine of $250. In addition to those sanctions, respondent was required to pay insurance surcharges imposed by the Division of Motor Vehicles.
We are entitled to give conclusive effect to respondent's convictions. R. 1:20-69(b)(1). In re Coruzzi, 98 N.J. 77 (1984); see In re Conway, 107 N.J. 168 (1987). In this case, respondent's conviction established his violations of the motor-vehicle laws. We do not view offenses arising from the driving of an automobile while intoxicated with benign indulgence. They are serious and deeply affect the safety and welfare of the public. E.g., State v. Schreiber, 122 N.J. 579 (1991); State v. Hamm, 121 N.J. 109 (1990); State v. Downie, 117 N.J. 450 (1990); State v. Tischio, 107 N.J. 504 (1987). They are not victimless offenses. See Tischio, supra, 107 N.J. 504.
We concur in the determination of the Committee that respondent's convictions establish by clear and convincing evidence his violation of the following Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct: Canon 1, which requires a judge to observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved; Canon 2, which requires a judge to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities; and Canon 2A, which requires a judge to respect and comply with the law and to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. We also concur in the Committee's determination that respondent engaged in conduct that
was prejudicial to the administration of justice and brought the judicial office into disrepute, in violation of Rule 2:15-8(a)(6). The Committee stated:
Respondent's conduct was clearly reprehensible. Judges must observe the highest standards of conduct, in both their professional and personal lives. The offenses committed by Respondent, particularly that of driving while intoxicated, have great societal significance. Though Respondent received the same legal penalties as any other citizen under the circumstances, he violated the law that he swore to uphold. The public good required that a judge act at all times in compliance with the law; for a judge to act otherwise erodes public confidence in the judiciary.
Although in judicial and professional disciplinary proceedings we give conclusive effect to a conviction to establish the occurrence of unethical conduct, we may, and should, examine the surrounding circumstances and underlying facts in determining the nature and extent of discipline. In re Pleva, 106 N.J. 637 (1987); In re Coruzzi, supra, 98 N.J. 77. That examination in this case discloses aggravating circumstances that bear on appropriate discipline. Those aggravating factors affect our consideration of each of the offenses. The drunk-driving offense resulted in an accident with another vehicle. The offenses of leaving the scene and careless driving were particularly egregious. The former, itself a serious offense, bespeaks a denial of responsibility and a disregard for the proper enforcement of the laws. The careless driving entailed not only an accident with another vehicle, endangering its occupants, but a high-speed chase, presenting significant risks to other innocent persons. As serious are the circumstances that followed those offenses. Rather than simply refusing to discuss the incident with the ...