The Center for Judicial Ethics

Article excerpt


The connection between public confidence in the judiciary and judicial discipline has always resonated with AJS's mission. In October 1977, AJS established the Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations, and the Center may be best known for the Judicial Conduct Reporter, which began publication in 1979. The Center's work focuses on the judicial code adopted by each jurisdiction to establish ethical standards for judges.


The American Judicature Society pre-dates the establishment of the earliest judicial ethics standards (1924) and the first formal judicial discipline system (1960). Although AJS did not initiate those latter movements, proponents of high ethical standards and effective, fair enforcement found a natural ally in AJS as they undertook the tricky act of balancing judicial independence, accountability, and public confidence in individual judges and the judicial system.

Creation of the Center

Prior to 1960, there were limited attempts to address judicial misconduct in some states, but they were makeshift, invoking a supreme court's inherent authority or attorney discipline power, or they were cumbersome and drastic, imposing impeachment. In 1960, California voters created the first "independent state agency responsible for investigating complaints of judicial misconduct and judicial incapacity and for disciplining judges."1 The idea of a permanent, systematic method for judicial discipline caught on. Colorado and Texas were next in 1965. By 1972, half the states and the District of Columbia had similar agencies, and, in 1989, Washington became the last state to establish a judicial conduct commission.2 Not that each commission is the same: They differ beginning with whether they are established by constitution, statute, or court rule; to the number and categories of members and the confidentiality of their proceedings; through the extent of supreme court involvement and available sanctions; and their names (using various combinations of commission, board, council, court, conduct, inquiry, discipline, qualifications, disability, performance, review, tenure, retirement, removal, responsibility, standards, advisory, fitness, and investigation).

Although punishment plays an "undeniable role" in judicial discipline,3 protecting the public, not sanctioning judges, is the primary purpose of judicial conduct commissions.

One way to protect the public is to remove the offending judge from office... [AJnother way to protect the public is to keep it informed of judicial transgressions and their consequences, so that it knows that its government actively investigates allegations of judicial misconduct and takes appropriate action when these allegations are proved. Judicial discipline thus protects the public by fostering public confidence in the integrity of a self-policing judicial system.4

The connection between public confidence in the judiciary and judicial discipline resonated with AJS's mission and created a logical relationship between conduct commissions and AJS that led AJS to encourage the establishment of conduct commissions in Judicature after California took the lead.5 Further, in 1969 (when there were 15 commissions), AJS sponsored the first National Conference for Judicial Conduct Organizations.6 The commissions were working in a new field and on their own within each state; the conference gave them a forum to discuss common concerns and learn from each other's successes and missteps. The conference (renamed the National College on Judicial Conduct and Ethics in 1992) has been held every two years or so since 1969, with the 22nd National College held in 2011 and the 23rd scheduled for October 23-25,2013, in Chicago.

At the close of the fifth conference, in 1976, several commission members and staff urged AJS to begin assisting conduct commissions regularly outside the biennial conference and to develop a clearinghouse on judicial ethics and discipline that would increase the amount of research and facilitate the sharing of information. …