Judges are to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence, pursuant to N.J. Ct. R. Canon 2(A), and must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. Justice must satisfy the appearance of justice. That standard requires judges to refrain from sitting in any causes where their objectivity and impartiality may fairly be brought into question. In other words, judges must avoid acting in a biased way or in a manner that may be perceived as partial. To demand any less would invite questions about the impartiality of the justice system and thereby threaten the integrity of the judicial process.
The parties to the action had operated the mortgage business for a number of years before having a falling out that led to the cause of action. The trial judge rejected each side's valuation expert and appointed another expert to calculate defendant's interest. The trial judge ultimately issued a second supplemental decision directing plaintiff to purchase defendant's interest in the company for $ 493,271. One day later, plaintiff's attorney visited the trial judge and asked about his retirement plans. Shortly thereafter, the judge announced that he would join the firm that represented plaintiff in the action. Defendant sought to vacate the final judgment and obtain a new trial after the trial judge's announcement.
Should a new trial be granted because of the appearance of impropriety?
Judges must avoid actual conflicts as well as the appearance of impropriety to promote confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary. Unfortunately, the negotiations between trial judge and lawyer in this case created an appearance of impropriety. Stated simply, the conduct here fell short of the high standards demanded of judges and fellow members of the legal profession and had the capacity to erode the public's trust. Because any lesser remedy would allow reasonable doubts to linger about the fairness of the outcome of the case, the judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed and the matter is remanded for a new trial.