Family ties are now ethical hamstrings for a municipal court judge who is the father of a police officer, as a stern state Supreme Court ruling Wednesday may require him to leave the bench.
The justices held unanimously that Perth Amboy Chief Municipal Court Judge George Boyd may not preside over police cases, whether or not involving his son, or supervise other judges who do.
Though stopping short of ousting Boyd from office, the court seemed to be handing him his hat and coat — since the restraints imposed effectively divest him of the power to do his job.
Boyd resigned as chief judge after the decision was released but remains a municipal court judge for the time being, says Perth Amboy city administrator Gregory Fehrenbach.
"We do understand that Judge Boyd needs to cease being the presiding judge," Fehrenbach says, adding that Boyd and city officials will discuss whether the ruling leaves him any room to remain on the bench.
Boyd had supervised two judges, Maria Del Valle Koch and Emery Toth.
The court did not suggest that Boyd harbored a bias in favor of the police — only that the public might perceive one.
"Would a reasonable, fully informed person, knowing that Judge Boyd’s son is a Perth Amboy police officer, have doubts about Judge Boyd’s impartiality in deciding a case that pits the credibility of a Perth Amboy police officer against that of a litigant? We believe the answer to that question is yes," Justice Barry Albin wrote for the court.
Boyd’s son, Ethan, became a Perth Amboy police officer on Jan. 1, 2011. At that time, Boyd told Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis Francis that he would recuse from any case involving his son. Francis ordered that any case involving Ethan be transferred to another municipality.
Shortly thereafter, Francis told Boyd he would likely have to resign because of the conflict. Francis sent the matter to the court’s Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activity, which concurred. The court agreed to hear Boyd’s appeal.
The court found that if Boyd heard cases involving the city police, even those not involving his son, he would flout Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2, requiring judges to avoid appearances of impropriety, and Canon 2(A), requiring they act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
The court relied in part on State v. Connolly, 120 N.J. Super. 511 (App. Div. 1972), which held that a Superior Court judge in Essex County could not hear criminal cases presented by the Essex County prosecutor, of whom his son was an assistant prosecutor.
That logic applied in spades to Boyd, since municipal judges are finders of fact, Albin said. Boyd might face making credibility calls and issuing rulings "extremely displeasing" to his son’s superiors, partners and friends. "It would not be unnatural for any father to ponder the consequences of his decisions on the life and career of his son — even if he were to do his best to disregard such extraneous considerations in deciding a case," Albin said.
"In any particular case, Judge Boyd will have to decide whether to accept the credibility of a citizen-litigant over that of a Perth Amboy police officer," Albin added. "Will the litigant reasonably believe that, given Judge Boyd’s filial ties to the Perth Amboy Police Department, he will receive a fair shake or that the scales of justice are tilted against him? Ultimately, a litigant should not be left to wonder about the judge’s objectivity or impartiality."
Moreover, since municipal courts serve as the face of the judiciary — hearing far more cases involving members of the public than the state courts — "[t]he public will pass judgment on our entire justice system based primarily on their impressions of the judges who preside in our municipal courts," Albin noted. "Certainly, the public will lose faith in our justice system if it believes that judges are hearing cases despite conflicting interests that strain their ability to be impartial. The mere appearance of bias in a judge — however difficult, if not impossible, to quantify — is sufficient to erode respect for the judiciary."
Boyd and his attorney, Frank Catalina, of Jersey City’s Margulies Wind, did not return telephone calls.
The case is In the Matter of Advisory Letter No. 7-11 of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities, A-12-11.