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Advisory opinion expresses concerns over certain judicial pay arrangements

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The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications has released an advisory opinion addressing salary payments to judges and judicial officers that may be made contingent on the number of cases filed with the court. The opinion cautions against accepting compensation from sources that may lead to the appearance of influencing the court.

The two-page opinion posted online focuses on the judges who do not receive a fixed salary for their work – such as some small claims judges or city and town court judges. Their pay may vary depending on the number of cases filed or a token sum per traffic ticket filed with the court.

"Judges who are paid by some measure other than an annual fixed salary must carefully analyze both the source of the funding and the entity’s function within the court to avoid any appearance of conflict. Judges who are paid per case filed in their court, or who are paid by an organization that holds a frequent role in court proceedings (such as a police department or debt collection agency), are especially susceptible to allegations of conflict or bias. Such payments need not be based on the type or frequency of case dispositions in order to be problematic,” the opinion states.

The CJQ pointed to a 2011 policy paper from the Conference of State Court Administrators that asserted the proceeds from fees, costs and fines shouldn’t be earmarked for the direct benefit of a judge or court official who may have direct or indirect control over the cases filed or disposed. This could damage public perception regarding the impartiality of the court.

“The Commission echoes this concern and believes that these types of variable judicial pay arrangements are of particular concern in jurisdictions where litigants may choose which court they wish to file cases. The standard for appearance of impropriety is whether a reasonable person could perceive that the judge engaged in conduct reflecting adversely on the judge’s impartiality,” the commission writes. “One can make a reasonable inference that a judge is more likely to rule in favor of a litigant who brings extra ‘business’ to the court. Even if the judge’s rulings are entirely free from outside influence, the mere existence of such a system can cast a cloud upon the integrity of the judiciary.”

It urges judges and judicial officers to avoid compensation arrangements that are based on the number of cases filed or disposed of by the court.

 

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