State of Washington
Ethics Advisory CommitteeOpinion 86-14
Is there any ethical impropriety on the part of a district court in contracting with a law firm to provide indigent defense services in criminal cases where a member of that firm presently sits as a part-time judge on one of the municipal courts in that county?
If the answer to the first question is in the negative, then what guidelines would determine when such law firm must disqualify itself from representing indigent defendants who have previously appeared before the municipal court judge who is a member of the contracting law firm?
The committee’s opinion is based on the following representations made to the committee: 1) The district court is considering entering into a public defender contract with one or more local law firms to provide indigent legal defense services for qualifying defendants in criminal cases; 2) Three law firms in the county have a member presently serving on a part-time basis as a judge of a municipal court in the county; 3) It is not uncommon that a defendant in a criminal proceeding in a district court has in recent past appeared as a defendant in a criminal proceeding in one or more of the aforementioned municipal courts, and on occasion an individual may have criminal charges pending in the district court and a municipal court at the same time.
It is the opinion of the committee that the fact that a law firm has a member who sits as a part-time municipal court judge would preclude a district court from contracting for indigent legal defense work with the district court as such a contractual arrangement may cause the impartiality and independence of the judiciary to be questioned. (CJC Canon 1 and 2.)
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