Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1995-7

Advisory Opinion No. 1995-7
Advisory Opinion No. 1995-7

Interpretation Of The Term “Public Office” As
Used In Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-80(b)

Pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-80(b), which enumerates the qualifications for members of the State State Ethics Commission, “No member…shall (1) hold or campaign for any public office” or “(2) have held any public office or have been a candidate for public office for a three-year period prior to appointment.”  Rachel Rubin, Supervising Attorney for the Commission, has asked whether these provisions would preclude a person who was a Justice of the Peace from serving on the State Ethics Commission.

Neither the Code of Ethics for Public Officials, Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 10, Part I, nor the underlying legislative history, provide a precise definition of the term “public office” as it is used in 1-80(b).  The General Assembly’s fundamental intent in adopting the proscriptions at issue, however, was that members of the Commission “…not be associated with political office…”  See, comments of Representative Hendel, Vol. 20 H.R. Proc. Part 15, p. 209 (1977 Session).

Justices of the Peace are appointed pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-183a, 184, 186, 252 and 51-95 as amended by P.A. 94-230.  Under this statutory scheme, a town’s Justices are apportioned among the “major” political parties, minor parties, and unaffiliated voters.  The major party candidates are endorsed by the party (e.g. town committee, party caucus, etc.) and are subject to primary; but do not appear on the November election ballot.  Minor party and unaffiliated candidates apply to their town clerk.  If there are more qualified candidates than vacancies, the clerk selects the Justices by lottery.  Id.

Although at one time Justices of the Peace administered Connecticut’s municipal and city Courts, this minor Court system has been abolished and the role of Justices of the Peace has been greatly diminished.  In essence, a Justice of the Peace’s authority is limited to administering oaths, acknowledging documents, taking depositions and performing marriages.  Justices of the Peace are not authorized to conduct any “judicial business.”  Conn. Gen. Stat. 51-95a.  Additionally, under recent Election Law changes, Justices of the Peace no longer have any role in the registration of voters or in the enrollment, transfer or erasure of political party membership.

Although the term “public office” is not defined in the membership qualifications section of the Code of Ethics, the analogous term “public official” is defined for purposes of service on the Elections Enforcement Commission.  Specifically, no person who has served within the three previous years as a “public official”, except as a member of the Elections Enforcement Commission, shall be appointed to that Commission.  Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-7a(a).  Justices of the Peace are, however, expressly exempted from the definition of “public official” Id.  In establishing this exception, the General Assembly found that “These are minor positions with minimal conflict with the Commission’s powers and duties.”  See, comments of Rep. Morgan, Vol. 23 H.R. Proc. Part 12, p. 217 (1980 Session).

At present, there is, however, no analogous statutory exception in the Ethics Code.  Absent such an exception, it is beyond the Commission’s authority to exempt a Justice of the Peace from the term “public official.”  Consequently, unless and until the General Assembly so amends the Ethics Statute, 1-80(b) must be construed to prohibit a Justice of the Peace from serving as an State Ethics Commissioner.

By order of the Commission,

Rev. William Sangiovanni

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:01:11 AM