The Connecticut Law Tribune by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers - January 3, 2011
It goes without saying that a democracy cannot exist without an independent and impartial judiciary. Connecticut has been fortunate over the years to have had many men and women of excellent caliber on the bench, resolving matters that are of the utmost importance to the residents of this state. It is also fair to say in our increasingly complex society that the ethical questions confronting the judiciary have also become increasingly complex. I would like to devote this year’s Forecast issue column to this subject, because without integrity, we lose the faith of those we serve. To quote from the preamble of the Code of Judicial Conduct, “An independent, fair and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The United States legal system is based upon the principle that an independent, impartial and competent judiciary, composed of men and women of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society. Thus, the judiciary plays a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law.” This preamble is part of the new Code of Judicial Conduct that took effect on Jan. 1. By way of explanation, the Code of Judicial Conduct provides a framework to guide judges in their professional and personal dealings. It is also important to note that lawyers benefit from the Code of Judicial Conduct as well, because when a lawyer brings his or her case before a judge, the lawyer knows that the judge’s impartiality cannot be questioned. The task of revising the Code fell to the Rules Committee of the Superior Court, chaired by Justice Peter Zarella. The Rules Committee made recommendations to the judges of the Superior Court that were approved last June. As you can imagine, there were a significant number of changes, but I will highlight just two of them. First, after each canon, the commentary now contains information about permitted and prohibited conduct for judges. This commentary is meant to provide guidance to judicial officers in interpreting and applying the rules. In addition, the Code was reorganized to emphasize the ethical standards that judges must meet both on and off the bench to uphold the integrity of the judiciary and to preserve and promote the law – such as acting independently, with integrity and impartially; not abusing the prestige of judicial office; and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. More detailed requirements relating to specific activities are now included in the subsequent canons and rules.
Committee Web Page
Moreover, Connecticut is fortunate in that its new Code of Judicial Conduct is complemented by the work of our five-member Committee on Judicial Ethics. This committee started with little fanfare – some of you may not have known of its existence. But let me assure you that its work is both significant and far-ranging. Through the committee, our judges may request either informal or formal opinions on a variety of matters. One of the first steps that occurred was the posting of the committee’s Web page. Opinions are posted, and the Web page has a wealth of information that I would urge you to review if you are interested. The committee has also added a subject index, for ease in finding particular opinions. Committee members received their first request for an informal opinion in August 2008. Work picked up quickly. From Aug. 1, 2008 through the end of that year, the committee received 27 requests for informal opinions. Most requests involved off-the-bench activities, and many of these same requests raised disqualification issues. Topics of inquiry were broad, ranging from recommendations or letters of reference to charitable activities or contributions. The committee’s work increased in 2009, when it received 40 requests for opinions. To quote from the committee’s 2009 annual report, from which I have also drawn the statistical information: “The committee noted … that the subjects of inquiry during 2009 revealed that judicial officials are paying close attention to the body of past opinions and some are seeking elaboration or clarification as to the application of prior opinions. The requests demonstrated a growing sophistication on the part of our judicial officials in seeking opinions as to increasingly nuanced and complex issues, reflecting sensitivity with respect to and concern for ethical conduct.”
Here are just a few of the issues that have been presented:
• Does a judicial official have a duty to report unprofessional conduct of an out-of-state attorney who testified under oath in a Connecticut case that the attorney had co-mingled funds in the attorney’s single law office account which he holds in a state in which co-mingling of funds is an ethical violation and, if so, how should the judicial official report the misconduct?
• Must a judicial official sua sponte recuse himself or herself from presiding in a family case on the basis that a party to the case has testified before the legislature in opposition to the judicial official’s reappointment?
• May a judicial official be honored at an event hosted by a law-related organization that provides legal services to people qualifying under its standards of indigency and be featured in its advance publicity if the organization intends to solicit law firm sponsors to underwrite some or all of the cost of the event? The committee’s work continued throughout 2010 during which over 35 additional advisory opinions were issued, contributing to a growing body of clear and concise opinions that help judges address a myriad of ethical issues. The New Year will bring new questions as the revised Code of Judicial Conduct takes effect. But the public should rest assured that the Committee on Judicial Ethics stands ready to do the same excellent work that it has done over the last two years and confidence in the judiciary will remain strong. The Code and the ethics opinions provide judges with the resources they need to navigate the complexities of their profession. As important, the efforts of the Rules Committee and the Committee on Judicial Ethics should bolster the bar’s and the public’s confidence that that they will come before judges of the highest ethical standards. Chase T. Rogers has been chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court since 2007.