Ethics Lesson: Think Before You Vent

Today’s ethics lesson comes from New Jersey, where a judge is subject to an ethics complaint (“Complaint”) due to several instances in which he claimed to have no knowledge of the law or the cases before him.

The judge had been assigned to the family law division one day per week from April 10, 2021 to June 15, 2021 to “address a management need.”  It appears, though, according to the Complaint, that he was very comfortable expressing his discomfort with the assignment.

In Count I of the Complaint, counsel for the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct describes 16 separate occasions in which the judge “remarked to litigants and their counsel appearing before him that he lacked familiarity with their case, was ignorant of the applicable law and incapable of adjudicating family court matters, and expressed dissatisfaction with the temporary assignment and the method by which that assignment was made . . .”

In one matter, the judge asked counsel to “walk [him] through their issues step by step” and “treat [him] like [he’s] a ninth grader in high school.”  In another case the judge admitted “I don’t understand some of this stuff.”  In another matter the judge encouraged the parties to proceed with mediation because “Frankly, you could get a guy off the street that’s more experienced than me with this stuff.”  When a party filed a motion to which 150 exhibits were attached, the judge told counsel to submit a shorter version because he did not have time to review the motion as is.  He further went on to compare himself to an obstetrician trying to treat a broken bone – “Maybe that’s a bad metaphor, maybe it’s not, but the parties ought to be realistic as to what they can expect me to do until [the judge he was temporarily replacing] comes back.”

But the judge’s words, did not alone express his dissatisfaction with the assignment.  According to Count II of the Complaint, the judge “appeared in the courtroom with his feet propped up on the desk and without his judicial robes.”  The Complaint argues that such actions “impugned the integrity of the Judiciary and the solemnity of the court proceeding.”

The judge claims that he has a “completely unblemished disciplinary record” and while he could have been more thoughtful with his word choice, the Complaint takes his comments out of context.

We have all been in situations where we’ve had to “pick up the slack” at work and step into a role for which we did not apply.  While ranting and complaining to your coworkers can be cathartic, it’s also important to remember that there is a proper time and place.  Whether you are an attorney, an accountant, a judge or any sort of professional – it’s alright to admit you need help or time to find the answer.  However, be mindful of what and how you say it, because you don’t want to talk yourself into an ethical violation.