THERE ARE many benefits to serving the public as a judge, but some tough restrictions come with the gavel and robe. One is an ethics rule that requires judges to remain silent when their decisions are criticized by the public or the press. That can be especially difficult when a judge's integrity is unfairly questioned.
A recent example illustrates this point.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Anita B. Brody ordered a convicted felon named Carlos Matos to step down from his role as a Philadelphia ward leader as a condition of supervised release. That condition was recommended by Matos' probation officer because the conviction involved bribery of public officials.
In her order, Brody wrote:
"This protective measure serves a rehabilitative purpose: It attempts to ensure that Matos has a period of time to reintegrate into society and develop the habits and contacts of a responsible citizen before again finding himself in a position with frequent criminal temptation."
City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez was unhappy about the ruling because Matos was supporting her for re-election in Tuesday's primary against Dan Savage.
A Daily News blog reported that Quinones-Sanchez found the ruling "troubling, especially since Savage's father is U.S. District Judge Tim Savage." According to the report, she went on to say, "It is clear to me that there is no way that Danny Savage is in this race unless his father is assisting him, which we know is inappropriate," and "This is evidence of what's going on."
Those remarks insinuated that Judge Savage had improperly influenced Brody's decision, thereby impugning the integrity of two well-respected federal judges based on nothing more than implausible speculation. There is no reason to believe that Brody had any input from Judge Savage or did anything other than accept a reasonable recommendation by a probation officer regarding a convicted felon.
Yet neither judge could respond to the insinuation because the Code of Conduct for United States Judges does not allow them to discuss active cases. (Canon 3.A(6) provides, "A judge should not make public comment on the merits of a matter pending or impending in any court.")
To make matters even worse, the judges' inability to respond appeared to give greater weight to the accusation. The report noted that "Tim Savage did not respond to a detailed message yesterday" and Brody's only response was "My order speaks for itself." This made it seem as if there was no defense to the accusation and further punished the judges for complying with their ethical restrictions.
IN A DEMOCRATIC society, citizens and the media have every right to criticize public officials, including judges. However, that right should be exercised with at least a modicum of fairness. Otherwise, the public's confidence in our courts is unjustly undermined, to the detriment of us all.