93 N.J.L.J. 617
August 27, 1970
Conflict of Interest - Representing
Zoning Board Partner on Governing Board
The following inquiry is presented for our opinion:
Is it ethical for an attorney to represent a zoning board when a relative and partner is a member of the governing body of the same township?
The inquirer refers to our Opinions 44, 87 N.J.L.J. 297 (1964), and 136, 91 N.J.L.J. 749 (1968), as possibly being applicable to his situation. Neither opinion is pertinent. Opinion 44 held that where one member of a law firm was a councilman, another member of the firm may ethically represent an elected board of education in the same municipality in view of the autonomous character of the board. In Opinion l36 we held that the mere fact that a relative (not a law partner) sits on a local board does not bar an attorney from representing the board.
The present inquiry involves two partners; one represents a zoning board (not an elected, autonomous body as the board in Opinion 44) and the other would be a member of the governing body. The appearance of counsel for the board before his law partner sitting as a member of the governing body may readily raise doubts in others concerned with the matter as to the objectivity of any determination of rights at this level of the proceedings. While either the zoning board's counsel or his law partner, governing body member, might disqualify himself in such instances, it would seem undesirable, if not unfair, to either the board or the governing body to be deprived of the services of either the counsel or the council member, particularly in view of the known frequency of such appeals.
This Committee's jurisdiction does not encompass the proprieties of public officeholders, such as members of municipal governing bodies; except to the extent that lawyers occupy such offices. In this instance it is our opinion for the reasons stated that it would not be proper for an attorney to represent a zoning board where his law partner sits as a member of the municipality's governing board.