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Don’t mix being a commissioner, census taker, ethics panel says

Maryland district court commissioners may not accept part-time jobs as door-to-door census takers, as this could require them to ask personal questions of people who have or may come before them, the state’s Judicial Ethics Committee stated in an opinion issued Friday.

The competing functions of neutral judicial officials and census questioners would “raise issues of the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the commissioners,” the committee wrote in its three-page opinion.

The 13-member panel issued its view in response to a question by an unnamed commissioner regarding the ethics of also working as a census taker/enumerator during this year’s count of the U.S. population.

The nights-and-weekends census job would last eight weeks, pay between $18.50 and $29.50 per hour, and involve meeting and interviewing residents who have not responded either online or by mail to the U.S. Census Bureau.

These census-taking duties have “significant potential to lead to conflict” with the Code of Conduct for Judicial Appointees, such as commissioners, the ethics committee stated.

The code requires commissioners to act in a manner that “promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and to “avoid conduct that would create in reasonable minds a perception of impropriety.”

Appointed by the chief district court judge, commissioners preside over initial hearings for arrested individuals, among other duties. Commissioners decide if defendants should be released before trial or held in custody pending review by a judge, an impartial decision that could be tainted if the commissioner was the defendant’s census taker, the committee stated.

“It is easily foreseeable that a commissioner, in canvassing an area for the census, would have occasion to contact and ask personal questions of persons: to whom the commissioner has issued or will issue charging documents; whom the commissioner has advised or will advise of their constitutional rights; for whom the commissioner has set or will set bond; (or) whom the commissioner has committed or will commit to jail,” wrote the committee, chaired by District Court Judge H. Richard Duden III of Anne Arundel County.

“Such contact could well compromise a commissioner in the performance of official duties and could also compromise the census-taking function,” the committee added. “A court commissioner could learn information in census-taking that may later influence a bail decision, for example. The person who answered the census questions posed by that court commissioner might reasonably question the impartiality of that same bond decision.”

The committee’s opinion followed its 2018 conclusion that commissioners should not be ride-share drivers, citing the impropriety of accepting tips from someone who had appeared or may appear before them. In its ride-share opinion, the committee also expressed concern for the safety of commissioners who might find themselves driving someone for whom they had denied a request for pretrial release.

“While these encounters would probably not arise frequently, a single instance could place the driver in a compromised position both with respect to personal safety as well as professional performance,” the committee wrote. “Risks taken when a commissioner goes door to door for the census are no different.”

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