In a recent advisory opinion, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission provided guidance about judges being involved in school-sponsored truancy intervention programs. North Carolina Advisory Opinion 2020-1.
The opinion stated that judges should not “meet individually with parents, school counselors, prosecutors and others to evaluate the facts and develop strategies to address” a specific family’s truancy issues. The opinion also advised that judges should not “’presid[e]’ over informal truancy dockets in schools or courtrooms or otherwise appear as a ‘judge’ when meeting with families outside of official court proceedings.” The Commission explained that “such personal involvement with a particular case would require disqualification” if that case “eventually resulted in a juvenile, criminal or other proceeding involving those family members.”
The Commission also cautioned that “judges should not create the appearance that they are acting with official authority in participating in truancy intervention programs established in local school districts.” That concern prohibited judges, the opinion stated, from “‘presiding’ over school-sponsored truancy meetings while wearing a judicial robe” and from “issuing a ‘summons’ or other notice on behalf of the program to direct families to appear at truancy mediations, hearings or meetings.”
Emphasizing that it was not suggesting that truancy intervention programs did not benefit the community, the opinion noted that judges could volunteer “to educate parents and students in group settings about court processes and procedures involved in truancy matters” and could serve as an advisor for such programs generally.
Similarly, the New Mexico Advisory Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct stated that a judge could be an advisor to the school district about its truancy court and could “speak to groups at a location such as a school to provide general information about the compulsory school attendance laws and the manner in which the cases are addressed when they come before the court.” New Mexico Advisory Opinion 2013-5. However, the opinion advised that a judge may not participate as a judge in a school district’s truancy court program, either in the courtroom in robes or outside the courthouse without a robe. The opinion described the program at issue.
A group of students, their parents, and the school principals appear before a judge. The judge advises the parents about the compulsory school attendance laws, including the potential for the school district to file a criminal complaint, and tells the students about the importance of education. Then, each school principal comes forward with individual students and the student’s parents and reports to the judge the facts concerning the student’s truancy. Based upon the principal’s recommendation, the judge will inform the student and parents whether the principal will continue to monitor the student’s attendance and whether the student and parents will need to return to the truancy court.
The committee noted that, although there would be no actual court filings, the courtroom setting and judicial robes were designed to establish the judge’s authority. It emphasized that “actual behavior and consequences” were involved and the program was “not a mock trial or moot court proceeding conducted for educational purpose.” Further, even if the program were held outside of courthouse and the judge did not appear in a robe, the committee considered the judge’s participation to be coercive given the judge’s position in the community. Accord New Mexico Advisory Opinion 2018-5 (a judge may not participate in a school’s truancy intervention court in his courtroom even if the judge does not wear a robe and is not the only person making determinations).
See also New York Advisory Opinion 2012-18 (a family court judge may not, as an extra-judicial activity, request Department of Social Services case files for truant children, meet with caseworkers, educators, attorneys, and parents to advise them about rights and services that may be available, and collaborate with them on ways to improve the children’s school attendance even if the judge will not preside in any of the selected cases); New York Advisory Opinion 2013-13 (a judge may participate in a focus group of key leaders in the community convened by a school district’s consultant as part of an analysis of local truancy and possible solutions); Pennsylvania Informal Advisory Opinion 5/4b/10 (a judge cannot appear in a photograph as part of a truancy poster project); West Virginia Advisory Opinion 2018-19 (a judge may participate in a state agency video to explain the importance of successful truancy measures for juveniles and be identified as a judge and wear a robe during filming).