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Brennan Center for Justice Files Brief Supporting Ethical Rules for Judges

April 22, 2003

For Immediate Release
April 22, 2003

Contact Information:
Laura Weiner, 212 992–8631

Brennan Center for Justice Files Brief Supporting Ethical Rules for Judges
Cases reflect a movement to preserve fair courts and judicial impartiality
Panel seminar on Wednesday, April 23 to examine judicial campaigns after White

On April 21, 2003, the New York Court of Appeals received a brief filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law in two cases brought by judges who had been disciplined for violating ethical rules. The Brennan Center filed the amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief on behalf of itself, Campaigns for People, Democracy South, and the Fund for Modern Courts in Raab v. State Commission on Judicial Conduct and Watson v. State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

These organizations are part of a national coalition that defends the ethical canons against increasingly aggressive attacks. Their brief argues that ethical rules that require judges to remain independent and open-minded are essential to preserving impartial justice for every individual who appears before New York’s courts. Last June, in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, the Supreme Court struck down a canon that had prohibited judicial candidates from announcing their views on controversial issues. Since then, judges around the country who have been accused of violating other ethical restrictions have wrongly argued that White prevents the states from disciplining them. In February, a federal judge in Utica ruled that many of New York’s canons were unconstitutional. (The Brennan Center plans to participate in an upcoming appeal from that decision.)

The judges who brought the current cases argued that their misconduct was protected by the First Amendment. On February 3, 2003, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct censured Justice Ira J. Raab, of the Nassau County Supreme Court, for making an improper contribution to the Democratic Party, screening nominees to other offices for the Working Families Party, calling voters as part of a Working Families Party phone bank, and threatening an attorney who had successfully appealed one of Raab’s orders. On December 26, 2002, the Commission ordered Judge William J. Watson, of the Lockport City Court, removed from the bench for making intentionally misleading statements about his election opponents and repeatedly suggesting that he would not apply the law impartially, for example vowing to use bail to make Lockport unattractive to criminals.

The Brennan Center brief urged the Court of Appeals to reject Raab’s and Watson’s contention that their misconduct was protected and challenged the assertion that, by having judicial elections, New York gave up the right to regulate judges political activity or their campaign speech. Fair courts and democracy are not mutually exclusive, said J. J. Gass, a Brennan Center lawyer. No matter whether judges are appointed or elected, every person has the right to be heard by a judge who decides cases according to the law, not according to politics. We cannot get impartial justice from judges who are under pressure to help political parties or to fulfill campaign promises.

Gass noted that the effort to defend the canons had been joined by one of the most respected retired judges in New York, Bentley Kassal. Judge Kassal signed onto a separately filed amicus brief in the Raab and Watson cases urging the court to uphold the canons. The fact that someone of Judge Kassals stature is involved indicates how serious the threat to the ethical canons has become, said Gass. Judge Kassal served as a judge for 24 years on courts ranging from the New York City Civil Court to the Court of Appeals, and he was a member of the Assembly before that. He is now counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Panel Seminar on White

On Wednesday, April 23, the Brennan Center for Justice and The Law Alumni Association at NYU School of Law will hold a panel discussion on the U.S. Supreme Court decision on White. Many observers believe that White dealt a serious blow to state regulatory efforts to balance the due process interest in fair and independent state judges with the free speech rights of judicial candidates.

The panel, which will be moderated by the Honorable Jonathan Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge, New York State Court System, includes Deborah Goldberg, Acting Director of the Brennan Centers Democracy Program, and Zachary W. Carter, a member of the Centers Board of Directors. It will be held at Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square South, in New York City, from 6:00 to 8:00 PM.

For more information about this event, contact the Alumni Relations Office at (212) 998–6410, email or visit the Web site.