Thursday, October 15, 2009
A recent opinion from the South Carolina Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct:
A summary court judge has inquired as to the propriety of the Summary Court distributing of pamphlet regarding civil justice for crime victims. The pamphlet is published by the National Crime Victim Bar Association, an affiliate of the National Center for Victims of Crime, as indicated on the cover. Two law firms are listed on the back cover, with an acknowledgment of their support. The pamphlet’s purpose is to provide victims with a basic understanding of the civil justice system and explains how a victim can file a civil suit against the alleged perpetrators of a crime.
The inquiring judge also notes that when citizen-affiants come in the office to sign courtesy summons warrants, they often make comments about just wanting to get their property back or monetary reimbursement. At that point, a staff member or magistrate routinely advises these citizens that the purpose of the warrant is criminal prosecution, not for the recovery of property or money. Victims are provided with Victim Impact Statements as required by statute and are advised that they may ask the judge for restitution if the defendant is found guilty. They are also advised that they may file a civil suit, whether or not they pursue a criminal suit, or whether or not the defendant in the criminal suit is found guilty. The judge inquires as to the propriety of advising the citizen-affiants.
The Summary Court may not distribute a pamphlet on the civil justice system for crime victims.
The Summary Court may advise citizens-affiants of the availability of civil proceedings.
Canon 2, Rule 501, SCACR, requires that a judge avoid the appearance of impropriety. Canon 3 requires that a judge perform the duties of judicial office impartially and diligently. Canon 2B, Rule 501, SCACR, states that “[a] judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others. . . .”
The pamphlet is published by a special interest group, with the assistance of two law firms in South Carolina. The pamphlet advocates civil justice for crime victims. The Summary Court, however, is supposed to be an impartial forum for justice. Thus, distribution of the pamphlet could create the appearance of partiality and impropriety. Furthermore, the Summary Court judge could appear to be advancing the private interest of others by distributing the pamphlet.
With regard to the verbal advice given to citizens-affiants, the Summary Court judge or other court employees may inform citizens-affiants of the differences between criminal and civil proceedings as set forth in the Facts section above, but must take care not to encourage or show preference for either proceeding.