In the Matter of Advisory Letter No. 7-11 of the Supreme Court Committee on Extrajudicial Activities, A-12 September Term 2011; Supreme Court; opinion by Albin, J.; decided March 6, 2013. On petition for review of a decision of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial Activities. DDS No. 04-1-9220 [23 pp.]

In this appeal, the court determines whether a municipal court judge whose son became a member of the police department in the same municipality may hear cases involving that police department.

George Boyd has served as a municipal court judge in Perth Amboy since 1991. As the chief judge, he also supervised two other municipal court judges. His son entered active service in the Perth Amboy Police Department in January 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." Thereafter, Judge Francis expressed to Judge Boyd that a "conflict" existed that required Judge Boyd’s resignation from the Perth Amboy Municipal Court bench. Judge Francis requested an opinion from the Advisory Committee on Extrajudicial 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 could not be overcome by transferring the son’s cases out of the municipality.

The Supreme Court granted Judge Boyd’s petition for review.

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.

Ensuring conflict-free, fair hearings and the appearance of impartiality in municipal court is vital to maintaining public confidence in the justice system. The sole issue here 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.

All judges must abide by the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The canons provide 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. A judge should disqualify himself in a case "in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned." 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(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."

To implement the code, the court adopted Guidelines for Extrajudicial 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 Extrajudicial Activities (November 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.

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. 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 a police officer against that of a litigant.

As a municipal court judge, Judge Boyd must render final judgment on the credibility of his son’s colleagues. 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. The workings of a judge’s mind cannot be put on display; that is why public perception matters. Judges must appear to be impartial.

The separation between municipal court judges and local law enforcement authorities must be as 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 Extrajudicial 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.

Chief Justice Rabner, Justices LaVecchia, Hoens and Patterson, and Judges Rodriguez and Cuff, both temporarily assigned, join in Justice Albin‘s opinion.

For appellant — Frank E. Catalina (Margulies Wind; George M. Boyd submitted a brief pro se). For respondent — Kim D. Ringler, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).