JUDICIAL NEUTRALITY PROHIBITS
J.P. "WAR ON HOT CHECKS"

Opinion No. 225 (1998)


QUESTION NO. 1: May a county-wide decal issued as a part of a "declared war on hot checks" that includes the names of the district attorney, sheriff and constable and contains a generic warning against passing hot checks also include the justice of the peace's name?

ANSWER: No. Canon 3A provides that a judge must act at all times in a manner that promotes impartiality of the judiciary. If a justice of the peace allows his or her name to appear on a decal, along with the names of the prosecutor and law enforcement officials, the clear implication is that the judge is acting in conjunction with these entities to prevent and prosecute issuance of hot checks. This violates Canon 3A by implying that the judge is partial to law enforcement, the judge will assume the accused is guilty, and that the judge is indeed assisting law enforcement in hot check prosecution efforts. Thus, a judge should not permit use of his or her name in a general law enforcement program.

QUESTION NO. 2: Justices of the peace across Texas "in reality.... conduct an executive branch prosecutorial function in hot check cases." The victim files the complaint and all relevant evidence in the justice of the peace office, the J.P. office then investigates and prosecutes the case by interviewing potential witnesses and contacting the accused "to pay restitution... ." Is this appropriate judicial conduct?

ANSWER: Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge should observe standards to preserve the independence of the judiciary. When Canon 1 speaks of independence, it refers to the judicial branch of government that must remain separate from the other two branches under Article II, Sec. 1, of the Texas Constitution. The executive branch includes prosecutors, sheriffs and constables; therefore, a judge cannot at any time act as a prosecutor in any capacity.

If the inquiring justice of the peace, or any judge, is prosecuting cases within its jurisdiction, especially contacting the accused for guilty plea arrangements, then the judge is absolutely, unequivocally, and indefensibly violating both the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Texas Constitution. Further activity in this vein must immediately cease.