The state Commission on Judicial Conduct is usually right in its own judgments about judges’ behavior, holding them to a high standard, disciplining them for giving or receiving favors, or even appearing to. That cannot be said of its conclusion in a report issued Tuesday on the subject of judges’ special license plates: The commission found no ethical problem with them, even though law enforcement officers’ comments, and common sense, say they are.
We’re not talking here about a judge stopped for speeding or driving while intoxicated directly invoking his or her judicial status in an attempt to get off. The commission says that would be unethical. But you really don’t have to say, “Do you know I’m a judge?” when your license plate screams it. Police acknowledged to the commission that they notice and are sometimes influenced by the honorific, declining to issue tickets once they realize whom they’re dealing with. The one commission member, Richard Emery, who dissented from the report says in some cases the commission has investigated, the police officer even drove the judge home.
Whether the officer does that as a simple professional courtesy, to stay on the judge’s good side in some future case involving himself or his family, or for some other reason, it’s obviously wrong. A judge who is breaking the law should be treated just like any other citizen — even more harshly, one might argue, because he or she knows better and should be held to the highest standard. As Emery said in his dissent, special treatment undermines public confidence in the fair and equal application of law.
A lot of judges have these vanity plates on their private vehicles — 424 of 1,200 current city and state judges, and 1,832 present and former town and village justices (who, unlike city and state judges, are allowed to keep the plates after they retire). Town and village justices, you may recall, were the subject of a 2006 investigative report by The New York Times detailing many instances of legal error, abuse and misconduct on their part, including a Westchester County justice who had warned the police not to arrest his political cronies for drunken driving.
That justice would almost surely have made reference to his judicial status and given a similar warning if stopped for drunken driving himself. But with a special license plate, it seems, that often isn’t necessary to get police leniency.
The commission is recommending that this be a matter for questioning and discussion in training for judges. What it should be doing is taking a clear position that vanity plates for judges are unethical.