Judges whose license plates identify the office they hold may, in effect, be trading on their positions to avoid the consequences of being stopped for traffic infractions, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has suggested.
Prompted by a recent disciplinary decision, the commission is seeking input for a public report to address the issue of whether the special vehicle plates violate the code of judicial conduct. It sent letters earlier this month to more than 200 judicial and legal organizations seeking input.
The commission initially disclosed in Matter of Schilling that it planned to conduct the study. In that case, the commission recommended the removal of former town justice Diane Schilling of East Greenbush, Rensselaer County, for arranging to fix one traffic ticket issued to herself and another to the wife of a fellow justice (NYLJ, May 11).
Both vehicles had “SMA” plates, indicating they were owned by members of the State Magistrates Association.
According to a footnote in the Schilling determination, “the commission has repeatedly evaluated cases of judges attempting to use their judicial office to influence the disposition of traffic violations.”
Schilling “represents a stark example of this problem and raises a systemic issue of how judicial license plates distort the normal process of enforcing traffic laws and the delicate position faced by law enforcement officers when they stop a vehicle with judicial plates,” the commission added.
The commission said it would issue a public report examining whether the code of judicial ethics is being violated “in the context of judges, in effect, using their judicial office to avoid the consequences of being stopped for offenses under the Vehicle and Traffic Law.”
In his letter seeking input, commission administrator Robert Tembeckjian said the agency’s staff is studying how many judicial plates are issued in New York, who holds them and if the plates carry any special privileges for the bearers. The staff is also researching the policies of other states on issuing plates identifying a vehicle as being owned by a judge.
“As expressed in the Schilling decision, there is a concern whether there is no public policy purpose to having a car identified as belonging to a judge and that one of the perhaps unintended consequences is that the drivers of such cars get favorable treatment when stopped by police.”
Tembeckjian said the commission wanted to wait until the Schilling matter was concluded before beginning the study. Schilling ultimately dropped an appeal of her removal recommendation.
Tembeckjian said the commission also wants to examine whether the ethics code is violated by placing a placard inside a vehicle or recording judges’ tag numbers with court personnel to make their vehicles eligible for reserved parking outside courthouses.
About 400 “SMA” plates have been issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles to town or village court justices. There currently are about 3,000 town and village justices in the state, but retired magistrates also may receive the special plates.
Bearers must pay a special yearly registration fee of $31.25 plus a $25 fee at renewal.
The president of the New York State Magistrates’ Association said it was unusual for the commission to launch an inquiry about such a general topic rather than an allegation of a specific judge’s misconduct.
Peter Barlet, town justice in Warwick, Orange County, questioned how well it is known that the initials “SMA” stand for the State Magistrates Association. He noted that in neither instance in the Schilling case did the officers who issued the tickets know what “SMA” stood for until they were told by fellow officers back at their station houses.
The conduct commission inquiry “needs to be linked to some type of legitimate purpose of their commission,” Barlet said.
He said that many magistrates do not order plates because they are concerned that disgruntled defendants might be tempted to damage a justice’s car if they spot the vehicle in a parking lot.
But justices and former justices who exercise the option regard the plates as a point of pride, he said, as do volunteer firefighters, medical specialists and other professionals who can also get specialty plates, he said.
State-paid judges also have the option of getting specialty plates indicating the court in which they sit.
The Department of Motor Vehicles issues the plates based on a list of the around 1,300 eligible judges supplied by the Office of Court Administration. Higher seniority translates into a lower number.
Unlike the local magistrates, however, the state judges must turn in the plates when they leave the bench.
Neither the DMV nor the OCA could say how many judges have specialty plates.
Tembeckjian said he expects the commission to issue a report on the plates by the end of the year.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.