Legal Ethics

Does 'milquetoast' ethics report ignore 'schizophrenic message' sent by judicial license plates?

Responding to concerns that the state’s judges could be getting a pass on traffic enforcement by trumpeting their status via special license plates, the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct starting looking into the issue last year.

In a Tuesday report (PDF), the commission says that displaying a license plate on a personal vehicle that identifies the registered owner as a judge is not a per se violation of legal ethics rules that prohibit an appearance of impropriety, and is hence a matter of personal choice.

It is, however, a violation of ethics rules for a judge to affirmatively seek to avoid the consequences of a traffic stop by asserting his status as a jurist.

As has been pointed out, judicial license plates can be useful in determining who is, and is not, entitled to use designated courthouse parking spots, but might also pose a security risk by making judges’ vehicles readily identifiable to disgruntled litigants. For that reason, the report says that removable dashboard placards should be made available to judges who prefer them, noting that display of such a placard when the judge is not using his or her car for official business could result in discipline.

In a dissenting statement, Richard D. Emery calls the “milquetoast” report an “exercise in evasion” that is “ducking” the “schizophrenic message” created by judicial license plates.

“We have repeatedly disciplined judges for requesting, or even appearing to request, special treatment based on their judicial status,” he writes, and yet “at the same time, by authorizing the issuance of special license plates to “public officers” and others … the legislature has implicitly permitted judges, as public officers, to have license plates that … flaunt their judicial status on their personal vehicles wherever they go.”

While many judges undoubtedly display the special plates as a point of pride rather than intending to take personal advantage of their status, there is, as far as the application of legal ethics rules is concerned, no real difference between driving a vehicle with judicial license plates and an individual voluntarily identifying his or her judicial status to a police officer in a traffic stop, Emery writes.

Describing what he calls an “open and notorious” policy in jurisdictions throughout the state of not enforcing against judges traffic laws that apply to other citizens, Emery says the fact of the judicial license plates being displayed, whatever the intent of the car owner may or may not be, encourages police officers to give jurists a pass when enforcing traffic laws.

By failing to address directly that clear issue, he contends, “the commission I hold dear has reneged on its commitment, and its duty, to confront a thorny ethical question and provide a meaningful, reasoned response.”

Hat tip: Legal Profession Blog.

See also: (Sept. 2012): “NY Judicial Conduct Commission Seeks Input re Judicial License Plates and Potential Ticket Issues”

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