98 N.J.L.J. 823
September 25, 1975
Conflict of Interest
Assistant County Counsel
The inquirer is an assistant county counsel, appointed by the
board of chosen freeholders, and his wife has been selected as a
candidate for that board in the coming election. He seeks the
advice of this Committee as to whether he would be placed in
conflict of interest or violate the Disciplinary Rules regarding
appearance of impropriety if his wife were elected a freeholder of
the county where he serves as assistant county counsel or if his wife were appointed by the board of chosen freeholders to fill an unexpired term on the board.
In Opinion 191, 94 N.J.L.J. 33 (1971), we held that it would be improper for a firm to represent defendants in criminal actions in a county where a former partner of the firm, who was also the father of one remaining partner and the brother of another, was county prosecutor. Similarly, Opinion 201, 94 N.J.L.J. 225 (1971), held that an attorney may not represent criminal defendants in the county where his son and former partner is now a full-time assistant prosecutor. A like result was reached in Opinion 237, 95 N.J.L.J. 410 (1972), where we held that it would be improper for an attorney to represent criminal defendants in a county where his wife was an assistant prosecutor, even though he had never practiced law with her or shared office space with her. Similarly, Opinion 288, 97 N.J.L.J. 766 (1974), prohibits an attorney from representing criminal defendants in the State while her husband is employed as a deputy attorney general assigned to the Appellate Section of the Division of Criminal Justice. Although we have never gone so far as to hold that under any and all circumstances lawyers with blood or marital relationship may not represent conflicting interests, such representation should be undertaken, if at all, with extreme caution, in view of the mandate of the Disciplinary Rules relating to avoidance of the appearance of impropriety. Opinion 237, supra.
The facts presented by this inquiry do not, however, involve a situation where the attorney would represent an interest which conflicts with that of his wife, either in her official capacity or as an individual. Both the wife, as a member of the board of chosen freeholders, and her husband, as assistant county counsel, would be acting on behalf of the whole county. While a situation might arise where there would be a conflict of interest on a particular question, there is no conflict per se, and the inquirer would not be placed in a conflict of interest should his wife be elected or appointed to the board of chosen freeholders.
The inquirer also refers to possible problems which might occur, should his wife be elected to the board, when he is considered for reappointment as assistant county counsel. Since his wife is apparently not an attorney, and since the question of whether, and under what circumstances, the husband of a member of the board of chosen freeholders may be appointed to a county position by the board is a matter of law, rather than one of legal ethics, we express no opinion on that aspect of the inquiry.