New Standard For Judges

Two New Jersey judges will not be disciplined for fraternizing with a close friend—a public official under indictment on corruption charges—even though they violated ethics rules, the state Supreme Court ruled Jan. 21.

In a unanimous ruling, the court also adopted a new standard to determine whether a judge’s personal behavior creates an appearance of impropriety.

Because of the new standard, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said, Passaic County Superior Court Judge Raymond Reddin and Paterson, N.J., Municipal Court Judge Gerald Keegan should not be disciplined for their conduct.

The court scrapped the In Re Blackman standard it set in 1991, which a judge could be disciplined if there was a “fair possibility that some portion of the public might be concerned” about a judge’s conduct off the bench. Under that standard, it did not matter whether the judge’s conduct was reasonable.

Now, the court has decided to adopt an “objective reasonableness” test used by 39 states, the District of Columbia and the federal courts.

“Because we believe that approach is fair, offers better guidance to judges and will protect both the public and the reputation of the judiciary, we adopt the following standard to assess whether a judge’s personal behavior creates an appearance of impropriety: ‘Would an individual who observes the judge’s personal conduct have a reasonable basis to doubt the judge’s integrity and impartiality?’” Rabner said.

Justin Walder, a lawyer who handles ethics cases, applauded the court’s decision to adopt a new standard.

“The objective-reasonableness requirement fairly and appropriately balances the fundamental principles as to the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” said Walder. “That standard will also benefit the public and its confidence in the judiciary in its fair and just administration of our system of justice.”

Keegan’s lawyer, Clark Cornwell III, also welcomed the change.

“The Supreme Court’s new articulated standards are now more appropriate for judges to follow,” said Cornwell.

Cornwell added that Keegan was pleased that the potential sanctions against him had been eliminated.

Reddin’s attorney and son, Raymond B. Reddin, said he and his father were “very pleased with the outcome.”

“And the fact that there was no punishment imposed speaks volumes,” Reddin said. “Both judges have unblemished records and neither engaged in any actual impropriety, and they can now go forward to serve the public with their heads held high.”

Last September, Tracie Gelbstein, who at the time was counsel to the court’s Disciplinary Review Board, asked the court to admonish Judge Raymond Redden and Keegan, who admitted attending weekly church group dinners with Anthony Ardis, a former Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission official who had recently been indicted on corruption charges.

Both judges denied acting unethically, but Rabner said that even under the new standard a reasonable person could conclude that their conduct broached their integrity and impartiality.

“By socializing in public with a defendant awaiting trial on criminal charges, in the very courthouse in which one of the respondents served as a criminal judge, both judges in this matter reasonably called into question their impartiality and weakened the public’s confidence in the judicial system,” Rabner said.

The court, Rabner said, accepted Reddin’s argument that the Blackman standard was “too subjective, overbroad, and vague,” and Keegan’s argument that it failed to provide judges with any “objective guidance.”

A standard that does not include “reasonableness” invites problems, Rabner said.

“Discipline should not be imposed on the basis of questionable deductions that one or more members of the public draw,” Rabner said. “In addition, a standard that focuses on reasonable concerns will help prevent frivolous complaints against judges and protect the integrity of the disciplinary process.”

Here, even though there was no actual impropriety, the judges’ conduct raised “serious concerns.”

“In this case, we find that respondents’ personal behavior could cause a reasonable observer to question the judges’ impartiality,” Rabner said.

It would have been a different matter had the contact between the judges and Ardis been random, which could have allowed for a brief, courteous exchange that would not have raised reasonable questions in anyone’s mind, Rabner said.

“This case, instead, involved a lengthy dinner in public, planned in advance, with a defendant under indictment,” Rabner said.

Because of that, Rabner said, the judges violated Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to observe high standards of conduct to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary; Canon 2A, requiring judges to respect and comply with the law and act in a manner promoting public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; and Canon 5A(2), requiring that extrajudicial activities be conducted so as not to demean judicial office.

Rabner stressed that it was not necessary to abandon a friend or relative who gets into trouble.

“Although judges must accept limits on their personal behavior, they are not required to shun lifelong friends or family members who face criminal charges,” Rabner said. “But planned social interactions like the one in question here are best held in private without a group of onlookers.”

Ardis, a former PVSC commissioner and longtime employee, has been friends with Reddin since childhood and with Keegan for the past 25 years, according to court documents. All three are parishioners at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson. About 13 years ago, Reddin helped form Bartimeus Family, a group focused on healing and dedicated to Monsignor Mark Giordani, who had been diagnosed with cancer. The group, which included Keegan and Ardis, began gathering every Thursday for dinner at various restaurants in Passaic County, followed by evening Mass, court documents said.

Giordani recovered but the group continued to meet, with attendance typically ranging from 15 to 30 people, according to court documents.

Reddin, Keegan and Ardis continued attending even after the June 2011 indictment of Ardis, who at the time was director of management services, board secretary and chief ethics liaison officer for the PVSC, a state agency that manages wastewater processing for four counties.

Ardis was charged with official misconduct and other crimes for allegedly directing staff workers, while on the clock, to perform various home-improvement tasks at his mother’s and girlfriend’s homes.

-Michael Booth, New Jersey Law Journal

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