STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. EDWARD HOLLAND
The court examines defendant's challenge to denial of post-conviction relief because the trial judge had been his attorney in more than one matter seventeen years earlier. Although the trial record contained no mention of the judge's prior representation and does not definitively show the trial judge actually remembered defendant was his former client, testimony before the PCR court confirms the State and defense counsel were informed the judge had served as defendant's private counsel. The court rejects the PCR judge's conclusion to deny PCR suggesting counsel's decision not to seek recusal represents a "valid trial strategy," which cannot be second-guessed.
Reviewing the newly revised Code of Judicial Conduct, specifically Canon 3.17, which mandates disqualification for a period of seven years following the conclusion of that representation and recognizes "disqualification for a period of time in excess of seven years from the conclusion of the representation may be required in certain circumstances." The court reasoned the necessity of preserving the integrity of impartiality and avoiding all appearances of impropriety must be paramount. The court concluded prejudice envelops the entire process by casting doubt and leaving the lingering question of whether a trial judge's familiarity favored a defendant, or conversely, caused a trial judge to overcompensate so as not to reflect an appearance of bias. The court held when an instance arises where a judge previously represented a criminal defendant, the prior representation and relationship shall be clearly stated on the record, and the judge then be disqualified from proceeding in the matter.