120 N.J.L.J. 1113
December 10, 1987
Conflict of Interest:
in Municipal Court of
Municipality of Employment
This inquiry concerns a police officer who was admitted recently to the bar of this state. He has filed an appearance to represent a defendant on a complaint by a municipal health officer of violating the local health code of the municipality in which he is employed as a police officer. The question posed is the propriety of his representation. He contends that he is not barred because even if found in violation, the maximum penalty is $500; further, that the charge is a violation of a city ordinance and, therefore, only a civil charge.
In one of its earliest opinions, this Committee in Opinion 11, 86 N.J.L.J. 621 (1963), held that an attorney who was a municipal clerk was prohibited from representing a defendant in the local municipal court. The reason was that "... the losing litigant, or the public in general, will be troubled by the suspicion that his adversary's success in the matter was attributable to his position or influence as a municipal official." Since that Opinion, there have been several opinions relating to attorneys representing PBA's, a county probation officer's union or individual police officers. State v. Galati, 64 N.J. 572 (1974); Opinion 320, 98 N.J.L.J. 857 (1975), modified 100 N.J.L.J. 1126 (1977); Opinion 576, 116 N.J.L.J. 556 (1985); Opinion 404, 102 N.J.L.J. 205 (1978); Opinion 260, 96 N.J.L.J. 1129 (1973); Opinion 113, 90 N.J.L.J. 473 (1967). These Opinions are instructive in emphasizing the necessity of maintaining public confidence in the fairness of the administration of justice in all the courts of this state. In our view, the language we used in Opinion 576, supra, is appropriate in this case:
Under the circumstances presented here, it is clear to us that to permit the representation suggested would impinge upon the public consciousness and create an aura that justice was not being administered fairly and even-handedly.
We, therefore, hold that the proposed representation here is proscribed. In reaching this conclusion, we also note, contrary to the inquirer's assertion, that a charge of violating a municipal health code is penal in nature and carries punitive consequences upon a finding adverse to the defendant.