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Bar News - September 22, 2006

Public Can Be Confident in Oversight of Judges



An Aug. 27 letter [to the Concord Monitor] from Paul Clements implied that the Committee on Judicial Conduct is controlled by the New Hampshire Supreme Court to “protect miscreant judges” and should be replaced by an independent body. The facts are far different.


In 1977, the Supreme Court established a committee on judicial conduct “to provide for the orderly and efficient administration of the Code of Judicial Conduct,” known as Rule 38. The 11 members of the committee were appointed for four-year terms and comprised one judge each from the superior, district and probate courts, one clerk of court, one lawyer and six representatives of the lay public. Therefore, the lay members held the majority on the committee.


This committee functioned independently, but beginning in 2000, questions were raised about just how independently because all members were appointed by the Supreme Court, all expenses came from the court’s budget, and it met at the Supreme Court building.


Several steps were taken to reassure the public and the Legislature of the committee’s ability to carry out its mandate. Finally, Rule 39 established a new committee appointment method and separated committee funding from the Supreme Court’s budget. On its own, the committee chose to move its meetings from the Supreme Court building to non-judicial sites: the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation or the Legislative Office Building. It now hires its own executive secretary to carry out research and administration.


The committee is now composed of two lay members appointed by the governor, one by the House speaker and one by the Senate president; one public member and one attorney appointed by the president of the New Hampshire Bar Association; and one public member, one superior court judge, one district court judge, one judge of probate and one clerk of court appointed by the Supreme Court. There are alternate members in each appointive category. These members substitute when regular members must be absent, or, as in the recent case of Judge Patricia Coffey, a member of the Committee on Judicial Conduct, is the subject of inquiry.


The Code of Judicial Conduct has five sections known as canons providing detailed ethical standards and guidelines for judges to follow in their professional lives. The most recent code was adopted in 2001, after substantial study by the Committee on Judicial Conduct, the Advisory Committee on Rules and the Supreme Court. It is based on the American Bar Association model code.


The role of the committee is to investigate claims by individuals who feel that a judge, master or other court employee has violated one or more of the canons. Often, the committee finds that it is the decision by a judge or master that leads a person to feel that he or she has been treated unfairly or that the court was biased or rude.


Every complaint is handled with the utmost concern. Court records and transcripts are examined, tape recordings of the trial are listened to, and occasionally a judge or master is asked for a response. All this enables the committee to decide whether a violation has occurred.


At no time can the committee reverse a judge’s or master’s decision in a case; that is the function for the courts on appeals. Should a violation be found, and fortunately they are rare, the committee can resolve the matter privately or may bring charges publicly in the manner of an open trial. The committee cannot dismiss a judge, but it can recommend to the Supreme Court that the subject be publicly censured, suspended or removed.


I hope that the [aforementioned] explains this important monitor of the judicial system in New Hampshire. All citizens must have confidence that the rule of law is worthy of their respect. Judges are human like the rest of us, but when sitting as judges or masters, they are bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct to pursue the fair and impartial administration of justice.


Dr. Robert O. Wilson, of Hopkinton, chairs the Committee on Judicial Conduct.


This article was reprinted with permission from The Concord Monitor and Robert O. Wilson. It was published previously in the Monitor on Sept. 7, 2006.


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