A judicial ethics panel has concluded that there is nothing illegal or unethical about judges displaying license plates identifying their office, but whether use of the plates are appropriate or advisable is a matter still under study by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics last week issued Opinion 12-141 in response to an inquiry on whether it is ethically acceptable for a judge to have a specialty license plate that identifies his or her occupation. It noted that in a prior opinion (see 07-213) the committee advised that judges can display a license plate that identifies him or her as a member of a judge’s association.

“Similarly, the Committee now concludes that the otherwise lawful display of a license plate duly issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles is not rendered impermissible merely because the license plate indicates that the vehicle registrant is a judge,” said the panel chaired by George Marlow, a retired Appellate Division, First Department, justice. The committee did not discuss circumstances in which the plates may be misused.

Thomas Klonick, a town justice in Monroe County and chairman of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said the agency will continue with its own study.

Under state law, any action a judge takes in accordance with a formal advisory opinion of the advisory committee is “presumed proper” for purposes of any subsequent investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Judiciary Law §212(2)(l).

However, the commission’s study is considerably broader than the basic question—whether judges have identifying vanity plates—addressed in the advisory opinion. Commission staff are soliciting comments and opinions from court and government officials, bar groups, civic organizations and others on the propriety and implications of specialty plates, and the agency is expected to issue a public report later this year.

The commission’s study resulted from a recent determination, Matter of Schilling (NYLJ, May 11), in which the panel recommended removal of a town justice for ticket fixing and, in a footnote, requested a public report to consider whether judicial ethics rules “may be violated by the use of judicial license plates 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.”

Klonick, who has specialty plates on his own vehicle, cautioned that “it is important that the public and/or the judiciary doesn’t read much into the mere fact we are doing a report.”

The commission chairman said the panel directed its administrator and counsel, Robert Tembeckjian, to study the issue because it arises on occasion and members thought it was time to “take a global look at it.”

“Judges shouldn’t assume we are automatically going to say this is something judges should not have,” Klonick said. “Certainly that is a possibility, but we just wanted to take a measured, thoughtful look at this.”

Tembeckjian said that data obtained from the state Department of Motor Vehicles reveals that 424 of the roughly 1,200 state-paid and Housing Court judges have license plates identifying them as judges. Additionally, he said there are more than 1,800 license plates that identify the registrant as a member of the State Magistrates Association (SMA). However, since former judges can be members of the association it is unclear how many of the approximately 2,400 incumbent town and village justices display SMA plates.

“It is certainly my intention to draft a report for the commission that reflects the various views, pro and con, that we receive in response to our invitation to comment,” Tembeckjian said, adding that his report will consider “the public policy purposes and implications of judicial license plates.”

Klonick, who has served as a town justice in the Town of Perinton since 1995 and has also held other judicial positions dating back to the mid 1980s, said he has always had license plates identifying him as a judge.

“I do late-night arraignments and oftentimes I want the police to know the car driving up is a judge’s car,” he said.

Judges have them for a variety of reasons depending on the municipality or area they serve,” Klonick said, adding that his wife, Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Frazee, does not have specialty plates.