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NJ: Law Firms that Employ Municipal Court Judges Are Banned from Making Political Contributions

Law firms in New Jersey that employ municipal court judges are banned from making political contributions, the state’s highest court ruled today.

To eliminate questions about the source of the money, attorneys can make political donations from their personal funds, but contributions cannot come from the firm’s business account, the state Supreme Court said in its unanimous decision.

The ruling grew out of the case of a part-time Bergen County municipal court judge whose law firm made $1,600 in political donations. The judge, Ridgefield Park attorney Philip Boggia, was cited last year by the state Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct for those donations, which the committee said violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and New Jersey Court Rules.

"Political contributions from a law partnership’s business account cannot always be readily identified with a single member of a firm and can suggest a judge’s direct involvement in politics," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court.

New Jersey professional codes prohibit judges from making political contributions. Many law firms devise their own methods to comply with those codes but adherence becomes murkier on the municipal level because most of those judges are part-time while still working for law firms.

Boggia, who has been a part-time municipal court judge for Moonachie since January 2004, was reported to the advisory committee in 2007 for the $1,600 in contributions his firm Durkin & Boggia, made to the Edgewater Democratic Campaign Fund and the Bergen County Democratic Organization in 2004 and 2005. Although the checks were signed by his partner, Martin Durkin, they were drawn on the firm’s business account.

At a hearing before the advisory committee in March 2009, Boggia said he was not aware of the contributions and said he had instructed Durkin and office staff that they could not make political donations from the firm’s business accounts after he became a municipal judge. Durkin told the committee he had mistakenly taken the funds from the business account.

The advisory committee held Boggia responsible, but the Supreme Court ruled today there was ‘‘lack of clarity in the law’’ and no "clear and convincing evidence" Boggia made the contributions or that he knew about them.

"To avoid the appearance of impropriety, judges and firms must fashion appropriate measures to stay away from what occurred here,’’ the court said.

The court referred the matter to the Professional Rules Responsibility Committee and the Advisory Committee of Extrajudicial Activities to develop the rules reflecting the decision.

Boggia’s attorney, Robert Ramsey of Trenton, called the ruling "an enormously important landmark decision."

"It is clear they want to stamp out any hint of political involvement by municipal court judges,’’ he said.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts reports 305 part-time municipal court judges in New Jersey and 25 full-time judges.

It remains to be seen whether law firms will adjust to this or whether part-time municipal court judges will find it hard to get work in private practice, Ramsey said.

‘‘We don’t know how this is going to play out," he said. People could adjust to it or it could turn municipal court judges into pariahs that nobody will hire. We’ll just have to see.’’

 

This article was published by NJ.com on July 27th, 2010 and was written by Mary Ann Spoto.