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Ordering Judges to Remain Silent Seems Unnecessary

September 16, 2010

Judge Nelson Johnson was unavailable for comment on this storyLife as a judge isn’t necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be.  Sure, you have nice working hours, significant power, receive deference from other attorneys and don’t have to worry too much about your wardrobe choice every day.  But there are some drawbacks.

Take the Honorable Nelson Johnson, a Superior Court judge in Atlantic County, New Jersey.  Years ago, before he wore the robes, then-trial attorney Johnson wrote the book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, which is a fascinating historic account of Atlantic City in the Prohibition era.  This book, which may have taken Judge Johnson about twenty years to research, is now the providing the source material for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, which premieres this weekend and is produced by Martin Scorsese and stars Steve Buscemi. 

Of course, at least as it currently stands, folks are not going to be able to hear more about the book and project from Judge Johnson.  The problem is that the New Jersey Superior Court believes that any speaking tours, interviews or promotions run afoul of Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, pertaining to “Outside Employment and Other Outside Activities.”  So he’s not allowed to do anything to promote the book.  He’s appealing the prohibition, but it’s uncertain what the Superior Court will decide. 

It’s unfortunate that Judge Johnson may not be able to talk about the story behind the book, particularly if the show becomes a hit (given the track record of HBO shows and the folks behind it, that’s a fair bet).  The Code of Judicial Conduct serves its purpose, but the judge’s achievements, especially prior to taking office, should be celebrated and promoted.  Perhaps he shouldn’t be allowed to directly make money off of speeches, but how is a book tour or interviews to promote a book he wrote years ago going to affect his impartiality?

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