Drawing new lines for the judicial system
In a response to a series of scandals that have diminished public confidence in the justice system, the state Supreme Court last week announced sound new ethics rules.
In apparent response to Justice Seamus McCaffrey's wife and chief of staff, Lise Rapaport, receiving referral fees, for example, the new rules forbid any court employee from accepting such fees from law firms.
And, in response to former Justice Joan Orie Melvin's conviction for misusing her publicly paid staff, the rules draw an even brighter line between public employment and politics and bar judges from hiring relatives.
The new rules also preclude judges from sitting on corporate boards of directors and mandate recusal in cases where litigants or lawyers have contributed heavily to the presiding judge's election campaign. Ideally, that will be a precursor to merit selection of appellate judges.
Less noticed among the new rules was a major change that could help to vastly increase public understanding of the court system. Rule 1910 opens the courts to televised proceedings.
There are many restrictions, yet the rule is major progress over the current ban on camera access except in very rare circumstances.
Rule 1910 allows televised proceedings only civil non-jury proceedings other than those in Family Court, and only at the discretion of the presiding judge. Such proceedings could include, for example, hearings on whether municipal governments should be allowed to exceed state tax millage limits and other matters of great public interest, such as zoning appeals and so on.
An even greater value to the rule is as a foot in the door. It should be the first incremental step to live coverage of most court proceedings, including criminal trials.
The experience in a host of other jurisdictions shows that the technology has become unobtrusive, and that television coverage helps to educate the public about the least visible branch of government.
Judges throughout the region should embrace the new rule and ensure that it leads to even further openness.