New York State
Commission on Judicial Conduct
Creation of the New York State Commission on Judicial ConductFor decades prior to the creation of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, judges in New York State were subject to professional discipline by a patchwork of courts and procedures. The system, which relied on judges to discipline fellow judges, was ineffective. In the 100 years prior to the creation of the Commission, only 23 judges were disciplined by the patchwork system of ad hoc judicial disciplinary bodies. For example, an ad hoc Court on the Judiciary was convened only six times prior to 1974. There was no staff or even an office to receive and investigate complaints against judges.
Starting in 1974, the Legislature changed the judicial disciplinary system, creating a temporary commission with a full-time professional staff to investigate and prosecute cases of judicial misconduct. In 1976 and again in 1977, the electorate overwhelmingly endorsed and strengthened the new commission, making it permanent and expanding its powers by amending the State Constitution.
The Commission's Powers, Duties, Operations and HistoryThe State Commission on Judicial Conduct is the disciplinary agency constitutionally designated to review complaints of judicial misconduct in New York State. The Commission's objective is to enforce the obligation of judges to observe high standards of conduct while safeguarding their right to decide cases independently. The Commission does not act as an appellate court. It does not review judicial decisions or alleged errors of law, nor does it issue advisory opinions, give legal advice or represent litigants. When appropriate, it refers complaints to other agencies.
By offering a forum for citizens with conduct-related complaints, and by disciplining those judges who transgress ethical constraints, the Commission seeks to insure compliance with established standards of ethical judicial behavior, thereby promoting public confidence in the integrity and honor of the judiciary.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted a commission system to meet these goals.
In New York, a temporary commission created by the Legislature in 1974 began operations in January 1975. It was made permanent in September 1976 by a constitutional amendment. A second constitutional amendment, effective on April 1, 1978, created the present Commission with expanded membership and jurisdiction. (For clarity, the Commission which operated from September 1976 through March 1978 will be referred to as the "former" Commission.)
Membership and Staff The Commission is composed of 11 members serving four-year terms. Four members are appointed by the Governor, three by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, and one each by the four leaders of the Legislature. The Constitution requires that four members be judges, at least one be an attorney, and at least two be lay persons. The Commission elects one of its members to be chairperson and appoints an Administrator and a Clerk. The Administrator is responsible for hiring staff and supervising staff activities subject to the Commission's direction and policies.
The following individuals have served on the Commission since its inception. Asterisks denote those members who chaired the Commission.
The Commission's principal office is in New York City. Offices are also maintained in Albany and Rochester.
The Commission�s Authority
The Commission has the authority to receive and review written complaints of misconduct against judges, initiate complaints on its own motion, conduct investigations, file Formal Written Complaints and conduct formal hearings thereon, subpoena witnesses and documents, and make appropriate determinations as to dismissing complaints or disciplining judges within the state unified court system. This authority is derived from Article 6, Section 22, of the Constitution of the State of New York, and Article 2-A of the Judiciary Law of the State of New York.
By provision of the State Constitution (Article 6, Section 22), the Commission:
shall receive, initiate, investigate and hear complaints with respect to the conduct, qualifications, fitness to perform or performance of official duties of any judge or justice of the unified court system...and may determine that a judge or justice be admonished, censured or removed from office for cause, including, but not limited to, misconduct in office, persistent failure to perform his duties, habitual intemperance, and conduct, on or off the bench, prejudicial to the administration of justice, or that a judge or justice be retired for mental or physical disability preventing the proper performance of his judicial duties. The types of complaints that may be investigated by the Commission include improper demeanor, conflicts of interest, violations of defendants� or litigants� rights, intoxication, bias, prejudice, favoritism, gross neglect, corruption, certain prohibited political activity and other misconduct on or off the bench.
Standards of conduct are set forth primarily in the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct (originally promulgated by the Administrative Board of the Judicial Conference and subsequently adopted by the Chief Administrator of the Courts with the approval of the Court of Appeals) and the Code of Judicial Conduct (adopted by the New York State Bar Association).
If the Commission determines that disciplinary action is warranted, it may render a determination to impose one of four sanctions, subject to review by the Court of Appeals upon timely request by the respondent-judge. If review is not requested within 30 days of service of the determination upon the judge, the determination becomes final. The Commission may render determinations to:
admonish a judge publicly; censure a judge publicly; remove a judge from office; or retire a judge for disability.
In accordance with its rules, the Commission may also issue a confidential letter of dismissal and caution to a judge, despite a dismissal of the complaint, when it is determined that the circumstances so warrant. In some cases the Commission has issued such a letter after charges of misconduct have been sustained.
Procedures The Commission meets several times a year. At its meetings, the Commission reviews each new complaint of misconduct and makes an initial decision whether to investigate or dismiss the complaint. It also reviews staff reports on ongoing matters, makes final determinations on completed proceedings, considers motions and entertains oral arguments pertaining to cases in which judges have been served with formal charges, and conducts other Commission business.
No investigation may be commenced by staff without authorization by the Commission. The filing of formal charges also must be authorized by the Commission.
After the Commission authorizes an investigation, the Administrator assigns the complaint to a staff attorney, who works with investigative staff. If appropriate, witnesses are interviewed and court records are examined. The judge may be asked to respond in writing to the allegations. In some instances, the Commission requires the appearance of the judge to testify during the course of the investigation. The judge's testimony is under oath, and at least one Commission member must be present. Although such an "investigative appearance" is not a formal hearing, the judge is entitled to be represented by counsel. The judge may also submit evidentiary data and materials for the Commission's consideration.
If the Commission finds after an investigation that the circumstances so warrant, it will direct its Administrator to serve upon the judge a Formal Written Complaint containing specific charges of misconduct. The Formal Written Complaint institutes the formal disciplinary proceeding. After receiving the judge's answer, the Commission may, if it determines there are no disputed issues of fact, grant a motion for summary determination. It may also accept an agreed statement of facts submitted by the Administrator and the respondent-judge. Where there are factual disputes that make summary determination inappropriate or that are not resolved by an agreed statement of facts, the Commission will appoint a referee to conduct a formal hearing and report proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Referees are designated by the Commission from a panel of attorneys and former judges. Following the Commission's receipt of the referee's report, on a motion to confirm or disaffirm the report, both the administrator and the respondent may submit legal memoranda and present oral argument on issues of misconduct and sanction. The respondent-judge (in addition to his or her counsel) may appear and be heard at oral argument.
In deciding motions, considering proposed agreed statements of fact and making determinations with respect to misconduct and sanction, and in considering other matters pertaining to cases in which Formal Written Complaints have been served, the Commission deliberates in executive session, without the presence or assistance of its Administrator or regular staff. The Clerk of the Commission assists the Commission in executive session, but does not participate in either an investigative or adversarial capacity in any cases pending before the Commission.
The Commission may dismiss a complaint at any stage during the investigation or adjudication.
When the Commission determines that a judge should be admonished, censured, removed or retired, its written determination is forwarded to the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, who in turn serves it upon the respondent-judge. Upon completion of service, the Commission's determination and the record of its proceedings become public. (Prior to this point, by operation of the strict provisions in Article 2-A of the Judiciary Law, all proceedings and records are confidential.) The respondent-judge has 30 days to request full review of the Commission's determination by the Court of Appeals. The Court may accept or reject the Commission's findings of fact or conclusions of law, make new or different findings of fact or conclusions of law, accept or reject the determined sanction, or make a different determination as to sanction. If no request for review is made within 30 days, the sanction determined by the Commission becomes effective.
Temporary State Commission on Judicial Conduct The Temporary State Commission on Judicial Conduct was established in late 1974 and commenced operations in January 1975. The temporary Commission had the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct against judges in the state unified court system, make confidential suggestions and recommendations in the nature of admonitions to judges when appropriate and, in more serious cases, recommend that formal disciplinary proceedings be commenced in the appropriate court. All disciplinary proceedings in the Court on the Judiciary and most in the Appellate Division were public.
The temporary Commission was composed of two judges, five lawyers and two lay persons. It functioned through August 31, 1976, when it was succeeded by a permanent commission created by amendment to the State Constitution.
The temporary Commission received 724 complaints, dismissed 441 upon initial review and commenced 283 investigations during its tenure. It admonished 19 judges and initiated formal disciplinary proceedings against eight judges, in either the Appellate Division or the Court on the Judiciary. One of these judges was removed from office and one was censured. The remaining six matters were pending when the temporary Commission was superseded by its successor Commission.
Five judges resigned while under investigation.
Former State Commission on Judicial Conduct The temporary Commission was succeeded on September 1, 1976, by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, established by a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by the New York State electorate and supplemented by legislative enactment (Article 2-A of the Judiciary Law). The former Commission's tenure lasted through March 31, 1978, when it was replaced by the present Commission.
The former Commission was empowered to investigate allegations of misconduct against judges, impose certain disciplinary sanctions and, when appropriate, initiate formal disciplinary proceedings in the Court on the Judiciary, which, by the same constitutional amendment, had been given jurisdiction over all 3,500 judges in the unified court system. The sanctions that could be imposed by the former Commission were private admonition, public censure, suspension without pay for up to six months, and retirement for physical or mental disability. Censure, suspension and retirement actions could not be imposed until the judge had been afforded an opportunity for a full adversary hearing. These Commission sanctions were also subject to a de novo hearing in the Court on the Judiciary at the request of the judge.
The former Commission, like the temporary Commission, was composed of two judges, five lawyers and two lay persons, and its jurisdiction extended to judges within the state unified court system. The former Commission was authorized to continue all matters left pending by the temporary Commission.
The former Commission considered 1,418 complaints, dismissed 629 upon initial review, authorized 789 investigations and continued 162 investigations left pending by the temporary Commission.
During its tenure, the former Commission took action which resulted in the following:
15 judges were publicly censured; 40 judges were privately admonished; 17 judges were issued confidential letters of suggestion and recommendation. The former Commission also initiated formal disciplinary proceedings in the Court on the Judiciary against 45 judges and continued six proceedings left pending by the temporary Commission. Those proceedings resulted in the following:
10 cases closed upon resignation of the judge;
2 cases closed upon expiration of the judge's term;1 proceeding was closed without discipline and with instruction by the Court on the Judiciary that the matter be deemed confidential.
Continuation from 1978 to 1980 of Formal Proceedings Commenced by the Temporary and Former Commissions Thirty-two formal disciplinary proceedings which had been initiated in the Court on the Judiciary by either the temporary or former Commission were pending when the former Commission was superseded on April 1, 1978, and were continued without interruption by the present Commission.
The last five of these 32 proceedings were concluded in 1980, with the following results, reported in greater detail in the Commission's previous annual reports:
4 judges were removed from office;
1 judge was suspended without pay for six months;
2 judges were suspended without pay for four months;
21 judges were censured;
1 judge was directed to reform his conduct consistent with the Court's opinion;
The 1978 Constitutional Amendment The present Commission was created by amendment to the State Constitution, effective April 1, 1978. The amendment created an 11-member Commission (superseding the nine-member former Commission), broadened the scope of the Commission's authority and streamlined the procedure for disciplining judges within the state unified court system. The Court on the Judiciary was abolished, pending completion of those cases which had already been commenced before it. All formal disciplinary hearings under the new amendment are conducted by the Commission.
Subsequently, the State Legislature amended Article 2-A of the Judiciary Law, the Commission's governing statute, to implement the new provisions of the constitutional amendment.
Summary of Complaints Considered Since the Commission�s Inception Since January 1975, when the temporary Commission commenced operations, 22,843 complaints of judicial misconduct have been considered by the temporary, former and present Commissions. Of these, 18,064 (79%) were dismissed upon initial review and 4779 investigations were authorized. Of the 4779 investigations authorized, the following dispositions have been made through December 31, 1997:
Of the 671 disciplinary matters noted above, the following actions have been recorded since 1975 in matters initiated by the temporary, former or present Commission. (It should be noted that several complaints against a single judge may be disposed of in a single action. This accounts for the apparent discrepancy between the number of complaints and the number of judges acted upon.)
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