Opinion 196

The Georgia Municipal Courts Training Council requests an opinion on the following issue:

May the Mayor of a City serve as judge of that City’s Municipal Court?

Insofar as this question involves the interpretation and/or construction of city charters and/or statues of this state, it is an issue for the courts rather than this Commission. [The Commission is aware that certain city charters authorize the Chief Executive to simultaneously serve as Judge of the Municipal Court. While perhaps legal, such a practice fails to meet the ethical standards enunciated by the Code of Judicial Conduct and cannot be sanctioned.] Insofar as the question involves the Code of Judicial Conduct and prior opinions of this Commission, it is answered as follows:

It is assumed that the judge is appointed or otherwise selected by the governing board of the municipality and that the municipality derives revenue from the decisions rendered by such judge. Under these circumstances, for such a judge to simultaneously serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the same city inevitably leads to a loss of public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, which is expressly prohibited by Rule 1.2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Additionally, as noted in Commentary [1] to Rule 1.2:

Maintaining the prestige of judicial office is essential to a system of government in which the judiciary functions independently of the executive and legislative branches. (Emphasis added.)

Finally, as the Commission noted in Opinion No. 175:

The entire Code of Judicial Conduct is replete with the requirement that in order to minimize the risk that a judge’s impartiality might be questioned, there should be an avoidance of any appearance of any impropriety whatsoever. Additionally, consideration must be give to the requirement of separation of the three powers of government: legislative, judicial, and administrative.

For these reasons, it is the opinion of this Commission that the longstanding and somewhat common practice of mayors simultaneously serving as City Court Judges is inconsistent with the underlying ethical principles set forth in the Code of Judicial Conduct. Accordingly, such dual service positions cannot be sanctioned, and individuals who currently occupy such dual positions should elect as soon as practicable, and in any event not later than twelve months from the date of this Opinion, which position he or she chooses to continue to occupy and resign the other.

Should it be urged that the 1993 amendment to O.C.G.A. § 15-1-8 adding subsection (d) thereof authorizes such dual service, it must be noted that such amendment specifically requires recusals in the event of a conflict, and the dual service here condemned would constitute a classic and permanent “conflict.”

In sum, no one can serve two masters.

[Pertinent Code of Judicial Conduct provisions: Rule 1.3. Cross reference to other relevant opinions for review: #137, #151, #155, #175, #181.]

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