Attending Meetings of Safe Neighborhood Initiative

July 28, 1998

CJE Opinion No. 98-9

You ask whether you may attend meetings of the Steering Committee of the Safe Neighborhood Initiative (SNI) which, as you state, was established by the City "to bring together members of the community for purposes of studying, planning and implementing courses of action to be taken to provide for public safety and improve the quality of life within the community." It is composed of representatives from the various police departments within your court's jurisdiction, the District Attorney's Office and the D.A.'s Victim/Witness program. You further state that "[t]ypical action" of the SNI "might be a decision by the . . . Police to target a particular neighborhood for increased police surveillance or priorities regarding domestic violence activity." As an observer at SNI meetings, you would not actually participate in the decision-making process, although you "may be called upon to voice an observation to the group." You believe that what you learn at these meetings would enable you to "more effectively allocate the strained resources of [your court's] probation department to meet its expanding responsibilities."

The relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct are Canon 2 which provides:

"(A) A judge should . . . conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

(B) [A judge] should not . . . convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence him."

and Canon 5(B) which provides, in part:

"A judge may participate in civic and charitable activities that do not reflect adversely upon his impartiality or interfere with the performance of his judicial duties."

Based upon these provisions, we concluded in CJE Opinion No. 97-8 that a judge would be prohibited from accepting an invitation from the SNI in his area to participate in a tour of a designated area of the city. "The purpose of the tour is to show members of the court areas of the city affected by activities of defendants who appear before them." In that situation, "[n]ewspaper articles about a previous tour [had] indicate[d] that defaults by habitual offenders [were] among the topics discussed . . . and that the tours [had] been instituted in the context of complaints about judicial 'softness' toward convicted defendants." While in No. 97-8 we recognized the importance of judges informing themselves about the communities in which they serve, we concluded that participation in the tour "would call the impartiality of the judges into question and would have the potential to convey the impression that members of the group had a special position of influence with the judges."

These same considerations preclude your participation in the SNI meetings you have described. However beneficial the efforts of this group may be to the community in which you sit, nonetheless the SNI performs essentially law enforcement functions. Thus, you would be exposed to the concerns of those aligned with the prosecution in criminal cases. The tendency for participants at such a meeting to urge the local judge to take a tougher stance in some situations is almost inevitable. Moreover, you are not equally exposed in such meetings to the countervailing concerns of the defense bar about the accuracy of the information put forth at the meetings and the possible unfairness caused by overzealous prosecution. The application of Canon 2 to such one-sided presentations can be seen in the very example you give of a typical topic at an SNI meeting, i.e., the need to target domestic violence in a particular neighborhood. In all likelihood, you will hear domestic violence matters involving people from every neighborhood in your court's jurisdiction. Thus, the potential for your impartiality to be questioned and for the impression to be conveyed "that members of the group had a special position of influence" (CJE Opinion No. 97-8) with you is not speculative.