On petition for review of a decision of Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extra-judicial Activities.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interest of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)
In the Matter of Advisory Letter No. 7-11 of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extra-judicial Activities (A-12-11) (068633)
ALBIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court determines whether a chief municipal court judge whose son became a member of the police department in the same municipality may hear cases involving that police department.
George M. Boyd has served as a municipal court judge in the City of Perth Amboy since 1991. As the chief judge, he has supervised two other municipal court judges. His son, Ethan Boyd, entered active service in the Perth Amboy Police Department on January 1, 2011. Judge Boyd advised Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis Francis of his son's appointment and his intent to disqualify himself from any case involving his son. Judge Francis informed Judge Boyd that all cases involving his son "shall be transferred to a neighboring court for disposition." Soon after, Judge Francis expressed that a "conflict" existed that required Judge Boyd to resign from the municipal court, and he requested an opinion from the Advisory Committee on Extra-judicial Activities. In Advisory Letter No. 7-11, the Committee expressed the opinion that Judge Boyd could not continue to serve as a municipal court judge in the same municipality where his son is a police officer because the appearance of partiality or bias arising from a direct familial relationship with law enforcement was too great to overcome by simply transferring the son's cases out of the municipality. The Court granted Judge Boyd's petition for review. 212 N.J. 570 (2011).
HELD: A fully informed and reasonable person could question a judge's ability to be impartial in ruling on matters concerning law enforcement colleagues of the judge's child. Thus, consistent with the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, a municipal court judge whose child becomes a police officer in the same municipality may not hear any cases involving that police department. The judge also may not supervise other judges who hear those cases.
1. Each year, the only experience millions of people will have with our judicial system will be in municipal court. The public will lose faith in the justice system if it believes judges are hearing cases despite conflicting interests that strain their ability to be impartial. The mere appearance of bias can erode respect for the judiciary. Thus, "ensuring both conflict-free, fair hearings and the appearance of impartiality in municipal court is vital" to maintaining public confidence in our justice system. State v. McCabe, 201 N.J. 34 (2010). (pp. 8-9)
2. All judges must abide by the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 1 states that a judge "should personally observe  high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved." This recognizes that judges are the personification of the judicial system and that public respect for the system depends on judges' conduct on and off the bench. Canon 2 exhorts judges to avoid "the Appearance of Impropriety in All Activities." Canon 2 provides that judges "should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" and "should not allow family . . . or other relationships to influence" their judgment. The commentary emphasizes that judges must be sensitive to public perception. They must avoid even the "appearance of impropriety" and must willingly accept restrictions on their personal conduct that ordinary citizens might find burdensome. (pp. 9-11)
3. A judge should disqualify himself in a case "in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Canon 3(C)(1). Disqualification is required if a close relative is a party, has an interest in the outcome of the case, or is likely to be a witness. Rule 1:12-1 requires disqualification if the judge's child is a party or attorney in the case. If the child is an attorney in an office, disqualification is required in cases involving the child's partners, employers, employees or "office associates." R. 1:12-1(b). A judge whose son was an assistant prosecutor in the same county was required to disqualify himself from hearing criminal cases presented by the county prosecutor's office, even though the judge's son was not involved in the case. That was so because the judge's son was "an office associate" of the prosecutor who tried the case. State v. Connolly, 120 N.J. Super. 511 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 62 N.J. 88 (1972). Rule 1:12-1(g) requires judges to disqualify themselves "when there is any other reason which might preclude a fair and unbiased hearing and judgment, or which might reasonably lead counsel or the parties to believe so." Rule 1:12-1(g) and Canon 3(C)(1) are intended to apply to scenarios that cannot be neatly catalogued. (pp. 11-13)
4. To implement the Code, the Court adopted Guidelines for Extra-judicial Activities (1987), which instruct judges to "always guard against the appearance of bias or partiality." Judges can also find direction in the Annotated Guidelines for Extra-judicial Activities (Nov. 2007), a catalogue of Advisory Committee opinion summaries. A clear theme of many opinions is that judges must avoid any appearance of having a special relationship with law enforcement. The purpose of our judicial disqualification provisions is to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process. This requires judges to avoid acting in any way that might be perceived as partial. (pp. 13-15)
5. Judge Boyd presides over cases involving violations of motor vehicle laws, ordinances, and the Code of Criminal Justice. Perth Amboy police officers will offer testimony against a defendant, which, if believed, will lead to a conviction for which the judge may impose a jail sentence, license suspension, or fines. A reasonable and fully informed person, knowing that Judge Boyd's son is a Perth Amboy police officer, would have doubts about his impartiality in deciding a case that pits the credibility of an officer against that of a litigant. Connolly involved the explicit disqualification provisions of Canon 3(C)(1) and Rule 1:12-1(b) because the judge's son was a lawyer in the prosecutor's office. The logic of Connolly is at least as compelling when a judge's son is a police officer in the same municipality. Also, Connolly applied to a judge hearing a jury trial. As a municipal court judge, Judge Boyd is the fact-finder. He must render final judgment on the credibility of his son's colleagues, including his son's supervisors and patrol partners. Judge Boyd might have to issue rulings that would be displeasing to Officer Boyd's fellow officers. It would not be unnatural for a father to ponder the consequences of his decisions on his son's career-even if he were to do his best to disregard such considerations in deciding a case. It is the appearance of the conflict between public duty and filial ties that will strain public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process. The issue is not whether Judge Boyd can maintain impartiality in cases involving Perth Amboy police officers. Because the workings of a judge's mind cannot be put on display, public perception matters. Judges must appear to be impartial. (pp. 16-18)
6. The separation between municipal court judges and local law enforcement authorities must be as near complete as possible. If a judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned, disqualification is mandated. Judge Boyd's involvement in cases involving his son or his son's colleagues on the police force might raise reasonable questions in the minds of litigants and the public about the fairness of the proceedings and the overall integrity of the process. The Court agrees with the opinion of the Advisory Committee on Extra-judicial Activities that Judge Boyd may not sit on any case involving the Perth Amboy Police Department or serve as the chief judge supervising the two judges who decide such cases. Judge Boyd may continue to preside over other matters. The municipality and Judge Boyd are in the best position to decide whether his continued presence on the court is warranted to handle the remaining cases, including conflict cases transferred to the Perth Amboy Municipal Court from other municipalities. (pp. 18-20)
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, HOENS and PATTERSON; and JUDGES RODRIGUEZ and CUFF (both temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion.
JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The figure of justice blindfolded, holding a scale equally balanced, is a common feature atop many courthouses. That symbol carries a simple message -- all stand before the law as equals, and justice will be administered fairly and impartially. If the public is to keep faith in the ideals represented by that symbol, then it must have complete confidence in the integrity of the judges who administer our system of justice. That confidence will come only when judges are above reproach and suspicion in the eyes of those who appear in their courtrooms. Appearances matter when justice is dispensed, and therefore public perception that a judge might be partial to one party over another -- whether true or not -- cannot be reconciled with the ideal of blind justice.
This case involves a long-serving and respected chief municipal court judge whose son has become a member of the police force in the same municipality where he presides. The issue is whether the judge may hear cases involving police officers who serve in the same police department as his son. We hold that, consistent with the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct and our case law, he may not. That is so because a fully informed and reasonable person, particularly a litigant, could question the judge's ability to be impartial in issuing rulings on matters concerning his son's law enforcement colleagues. We therefore conclude that he may not hear cases involving police department officers and employees who serve with his son in the same municipality where he presides as a judge, nor may he act as the chief judge supervising other judges who hear such cases.
George M. Boyd has served as a municipal court judge in the City of Perth Amboy since 1991.*fn1 As the court's chief judge, he has exercised administrative responsibilities and has supervised two other municipal court judges. Together, all three judges hold at least six court sessions each week in the Perth Amboy Municipal Court. No one has raised any question about Judge Boyd's ability or integrity during his years of service on the bench. The sole issue is whether his son's appointment as a police officer in Perth Amboy creates either a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest in Judge Boyd's presiding over cases involving the Perth Amboy Police Department.
In July 2010, Ethan Boyd, the judge's then twenty-seven year-old son, was sworn in as a police officer in the Perth Amboy Police Department, and, after training at the police academy, entered active service on January 1, 2011. Officer Boyd was born, raised, and educated in Perth Amboy, but had not resided with his parents in the five years preceding his employment as a police officer.
During the week of his son's swearing-in ceremony, Judge Boyd advised Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis Francis of his son's appointment as a Perth Amboy police officer. By letter ...