Informal Opinion 98-1
January 26, 1998

The Ethics Advisory Committee has been asked by the Justice Court Board whether a part-time justice court judge must enter disqualification in proceedings involving the county which employs the judge in a non-judicial capacity.

The request for opinion states that the judge's county employment, apparently in the Office of the County Treasurer, requires "the collection of fees in registration of vehicles, [as required by] county ordinances[,] that in all probability would give prior knowledge of violations that come before the local Court." The Board questions whether the prior knowledge of violations requires disqualification in judicial proceedings involving those same violations. The Board also questions whether the judge's "dual roles" present a conflict of interest.

Canon 3E(1) requires a judge to enter disqualification "in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Impartiality might be questioned when a judge gains knowledge of a case through means other than the judicial process. "A judge is disqualified if he or she has prior personal knowledge of evidentiary facts regarding a proceeding before the judge." Jeffrey M. Shaman et al., Judicial Conduct and Ethics 113 (2d ed. 1995). Information learned through nonjudicial employment may therefore provide the basis for judicial disqualification. If the judge becomes aware of registration violations, or violations of other county ordinances, through the judge's nonjudicial employment, the judge may not preside over proceedings involving those violations in a judicial capacity.

The Committee is also of the opinion that disqualification is not limited to those proceedings concerning which the judge has actual, prior personal knowledge. The New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, in Opinion 89-147, stated that a town justice may serve on a local fire department and a county planning board. However, the judge was required to recuse if those agencies were a party or other matters concerning the operation of these agencies came before the judge's court. The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, in Opinion 90-399, similarly held that a judge is disqualified from proceedings involving the county personnel board because the judge was a member of the personnel board supervisory commission, which was the appointing authority for the county personnel board. These opinions required disqualification even if the judge did not have personal knowledge of the facts or issued involved in the proceedings. Disqualification was not required for all county or municipal matters, but only those cases involving the department or board that employed the judge.

The Committee believes that a judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned in all cases involving the department which employs the judge, even if the judge does not have personal knowledge of the facts or issues of the proceeding. The judge should enter disqualification in all proceedings involving the county department that employs the judge in a nonjudicial capacity.