Tuesday, January 16, 2018
The South Carolina Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct opines on the implications of a dating relationship
RE: Propriety of a magistrate holding bond hearings, signing warrants and presiding over preliminary hearings where the magistrate is dating the county sheriff.
A county magistrate just began dating the county sheriff. The magistrate is the presiding judge over Bond Court and the magistrate’s duties include: setting bonds twice a day, signing warrants, signing search warrants, and presiding over preliminary hearings. The judge inquires as to under which circumstances the judge must recuse himself/herself and/or when the judge would need to disclose the relationship.
The judge shall disqualify himself in a proceeding where he or she has a potential personal bias, such as handling any matters in which employees of the sheriff, whom the judge is dating, appear as witnesses.
A judge must disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding where his/her impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Rule 501, SCACR, Canon 3E(1).1 Furthermore, the judge must disqualify himself/herself if the judge has a personal bias concerning a party. Rule 501, SCACR, Canon 3E(1)(a). In 17-2002, this Committee addressed a situation in which a magistrate was dating a police officer who might be required to bring matters, such as arraignments, bond hearings, and warrant requests, before the magistrate when the municipal judge was unavailable. We determined that the relationship between the judge and his girlfriend could affect the outcome of the proceedings and that the magistrate should recuse himself in any matters brought before him by his girlfriend.
After discussing earlier opinions
In this case, the magistrate is dating the sheriff. While it may be unlikely that the sheriff personally appears before the magistrate, the sheriff’s employees will regularly appear before the magistrate for bond hearings, warrant requests, and other matters. Thus, this situation can be distinguished from Opinion 17-2002 in which the judge was dating a police officer, but not the chief of police or the sheriff (i.e., a person whose employees will regularly appear before the Court). The Committee’s previous opinions finding no conflict either involved a non-supervisory law enforcement officer, no overlap in jurisdiction, or some other distinguishing factor. This situation presented here is more comparable to Opinions 1-2005, 8-2007, and 1-2009 in which the judge would have to frequently recuse himself or herself because the judge’s spouse or his/her employees would regularly appear in the judge’s court. Even if the judge and the sheriff are not married, their relationship could lead to the judge’s impartiality being questioned and would require disqualification in any cases in which the sheriff and/or the sheriff’s employees appeared.