Most judicial systems around the world have adopted codes of conduct or equivalent rules to guide judicial officers on a range of issues. Although there are different models for enforcing norms of judicial behavior, there is global consensus that judicial integrity requires the highest ethical standards.
Professional and Private Conduct
Codes of judicial ethics address behavior in the courtroom and other professional activity, but they also have implications for a judge’s private conduct. Preserving public confidence in the judiciary requires that judges accept certain limitations that would not apply if they were ordinary citizens. For example, judges are often counseled to refrain from memberships or associations that give even an appearance of bias or call their independence into question; they also must avoid any personal benefit from their position. Judges are typically advised to maintain distance from political causes, parties, or offices. However, some state-court judges in the United States and certain types of judges in Switzerland and Japan must run for election or reappointment.
Judges do not forfeit the right to free speech when they join the judiciary. But there are constraints on judicial speech, both in a professional capacity and in private life. Codes of conduct usually prohibit making statements about pending, impending, and nonpublic cases, since this may give rise to allegations of bias or prejudgment. Judges are also counseled to avoid statements that suggest prejudice against individuals and groups or opinions about issues that may arise in litigation.
Most countries have adopted mechanisms to sanction or remove judges in cases of misconduct. Some of these processes are self-regulating by the judiciary. Others provide for external oversight by the legislature, the judicial service commission, or a judicial council. In some countries, membership in judicial commissions and councils has been politicized, potentially undermining the integrity of the judicial discipline process.
In Chile, a unique appellate mechanism exists for disciplining judges. The writ of grievance, also known as queja, is a traditional remedy permitting the Supreme Court to exercise disciplinary power over all the country’s courts for acts that are not crimes but constitute immoral or unethical conduct (including verbal disrespect, abuse of employees, neglect of duty, incurring excessive personal debt, and favoritism in appointments) or abusive judicial action (including unexcused delays in entering judgments and decrees or manifestly unjust provisional remedies). Upon filing such a writ, the higher court determines whether the proceeding should be stayed pending review of the grievance.
Some countries, including Senegal and Tunisia, have introduced the position of an inspector general to oversee judicial conduct. Other countries like Bulgaria have an inspectorate attached to a judicial council. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has debated legislation to create an inspector general for the lower federal courts to publish annual reports, recommend reforms, and investigate allegations of misconduct, fraud, or waste. These debates reflect concerns that the federal judiciary is self-regulating while other smaller and less influential government bodies have external oversight. Those who oppose creating such a position argue that any benefits are outweighed by the potential that it could undermine judicial independence.
Countries vary on what conduct warrants a disciplinary response, and there is usually a range of sanctions, from an informal reprimand to the withholding of salary or promotion, censure, or removal.
The examples described below illustrate the broad range of approaches to the ultimate sanction: removal from office.
The Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of Kenya includes an extensive list of sanctions for judicial misbehavior. The options include reduction in rank, withholding promotion, reprimand, severe reprimand, and dismissal. Kenya’s code states that violation of “any of the rules” will constitute misconduct and trigger disciplinary action. Removal of a judge is initiated by the Judicial Service Commission, acting on its own motion or on the petition of any person. If the commission finds the petition meritorious, it is sent to the president, who in turn forwards the allegations to a tribunal for review. If the tribunal concludes removal is warranted, the judge will be removed by the president.
Judges are accountable for their conduct to the chief justice or the judge-president as well as the Judicial Service Commission. Judges may only be removed from office for mental incapacity or gross misconduct that is determined by an investigation conducted by the Judicial Service Commission. The commission may convey a recommendation for removal directly to the president. No other body may recommend the removal of a judge.
Judges in Uganda may be removed for nonperformance due to mental or physical incapacity, misconduct, or incompetence. Where misconduct is alleged, the Judicial Service Commission follows a two-step process. First the commission must find a prima facie case. If this is confirmed, the commission refers the matter to the president with a recommendation that a tribunal be established to hear the matter. If the tribunal recommends removal, the judge is removed by the president.
Complaints against Indian judges are filed with the court registrar or chief justice of the higher courts. If the charges are deemed serious after an investigation by the judiciary, an impeachment motion is initiated in parliament, and the speaker of the chamber examines relevant materials. If the motion is accepted, an investigatory committee is convened, comprising of a supreme court justice, the chief justice of a high court, and a distinguished jurist. The committee frames the charges, and the accused judge may respond in writing. The committee report is submitted to the speaker, who then presents it to the chamber. If misconduct is found, a motion for removal is considered. If both houses of parliament adopt the motion for removal, the president then orders removal of the judge.
A Japanese citizen may submit a complaint and evidence to a specially constituted committee in the Diet which then decides whether to move the case to an impeachment tribunal, also in the Diet. Supreme court justices in Japan also may be removed by referendum. The names of justices are placed on the general election ballot upon appointment and at ten-year intervals. This method of judicial removal is rare.
If judges violate the code of ethics, are mentally or physically infirm, or cannot properly conduct their responsibilities, the prime minister—or the chief justice in consultation with the prime minister—may send a recommendation for a judge’s removal to the king. The king appoints a tribunal to investigate and make a recommendation. The king then removes the judge if so recommended.
German judges may be removed through impeachment, by formal disciplinary proceedings, in the interests of justice, or due to changes in the structure of the courts. The first three grounds occur through decisions of the Judicial Service Court and are effectively a judicial decision. At the federal level, the Federal Court of Justice has a special chamber that conducts disciplinary proceedings, including dismissal. In cases where a federal judge has breached the constitutional order, the constitution provides for removal upon request to the Federal Constitutional Court with two-thirds majority of the Bundestag.
The disciplinary chamber of the supreme court has authority to sanction (by fine or reduction in pay) and remove judges. In 2020, a new law was implemented giving politicians the power to fine and remove judges.
Judges in Scotland may be removed only by the monarch upon recommendation of the first minister for incapacity, neglect of duty, or misbehavior. This recommendation may be made only upon a resolution by the Scottish parliament after the first minister presents a motion for removal. Before the first minister can present the motion, a tribunal mandated by the Judiciary and Courts Act must provide a written report with recommendations and supporting reasons for removal.
Middle East/North Africa
A chief judge has the authority to issue warnings, in writing or verbally, for performance-related issues. Disciplinary proceedings for judicial misconduct may be initiated by a chief judge or the prosecutor general, either on his own initiative at the request of the minister of justice. A member of the court of cassation or court of appeals investigates the allegations. Following the investigation, the accused judge is afforded a hearing before a disciplinary board under the Supreme Judicial Council. The disciplinary board decides on the appropriate sanction, up to and including removal. This decision may be appealed by the sanctioned judge to a supreme disciplinary board, also empaneled under Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council.
The Ombudsman’s Office of the Israeli Judiciary investigates complaints from anyone who feels injured by judicial misconduct. The ombudsman is authorized to recommend reprimand, counsel judges on how to improve their behavior, and recommend removal in serious cases. Two institutions have the authority to remove a judge: the Court of Discipline (judges appointed by the president of the supreme court) or the Judicial Selection Committee, at the proposal of the ministry of justice or the president of the supreme court.
The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 created a supreme judicial council to be responsible for managing the judiciary, including oversight of the judicial discipline and removal process. Complaints about judicial conduct are sent to the president of the council or the minister of justice. They in turn refer the complaint for investigation by the judicial inspectorate. If there is evidence to support the complaint, it is referred to the subdivision of the council that oversees the accused judge’s court. An investigative judge further looks into the matter and submits a report. After a disciplinary hearing, the presiding officers vote on whether a sanction or removal should be imposed.
The Canadian Judicial Council is a body of appointed federal judges who advise parliament on whether a judge should be removed for misconduct. The council has a judicial conduct committee that examines complaints against judges to determine whether the alleged conduct is within the scope of justifying removal. If so an inquiry committee forms to investigate and to interview relevant parties, including the judge in question. The inquiry committee can only recommend for or against removal and does not have the power to offer any lesser sanctions. If the inquiry finds removal is not warranted, the matter is referred to the chair of the judicial council.
The Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 provides procedures for the judiciary to investigate allegations of misconduct or disability against federal judges. The chief circuit judge reviews complaints against judges and refers meritorious complaints for investigation to a special committee of judges. The special committee submits its findings to the circuit judicial council. The council may dismiss the case, implement corrective measures, or refer the case to the Judicial Conference. The Judicial Conference may add further corrective measures or recommend impeachment by the House of Representatives. A simple majority of the house is required to sustain an impeachment; the case is then sent to the Senate for trial. A judge will only be removed if the Senate trial ends with a vote to convict by two-thirds of the of the senators. Supreme court justices are not subject to this legislation; however, under the United States Constitution, they may be impeached for serious ethical or criminal misconduct. State court judiciaries have their own procedures for filing and investigating allegations of judicial misconduct and imposing sanctions or removal.
Judges in Argentina may be removed by a special jury composed of lawyers with federal registration, judges, and members of parliament. These special juries hear charges of misconduct or crimes committed by a judge either while acting in official capacity and while off duty. A body of the judicial branch call the Council of Magistracy of the Nation brings these charges before the jury.
The National Justice Council, created by constitutional amendment in 2004, is a national body of judges, members of the bar and prosecution, and members appointed by the legislature. The council can receive complaints against judges and manage disciplinary proceedings against them, including removal or other sanctions.
Judges have life tenure but may be removed for bad behavior. The Supreme Court of Chile has power to remove lower-court judges. Supreme court justices can only in cases of “notorious abandonment of duty,” and removal requires a majority vote of both chambers of congress.
Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct
In 2003, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, outlining six core values for judiciaries around the world. These principles were developed over the course of successive meetings sponsored by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). While the first meetings were limited to countries with common-law systems, civil-law countries soon joined. Participants included chief justices and senior judges. The assembly became known as the Judicial Integrity Group. Its members consulted ethics rules and codes from all regions of the world and agreed that the judiciary had to take steps to promote public confidence by adopting universally accepted standards.
Judicial independence is a prerequisite to the rule of law and a fundamental guarantee of a fair trial. A judge shall therefore uphold and exemplify judicial independence in both its individual and institutional aspects.
Impartiality is essential to the proper discharge of the judicial office. It applies not only to the decision itself but also to the process by which the decision is made.
Integrity is essential to the proper discharge of the judicial office.
Propriety, and the appearance of propriety, are essential to the performance of all of the activities of a judge.
Ensuring equality of treatment to all before the courts is essential to the due performance of the judicial office.
Competence & Diligence
Competence and diligence are prerequisites to the due performance of judicial office.
Magna Carta of European Judges
In 2000, the Council of Europe established the Council of European Judges (CCJE) to act as an advisory body to the Committee of Ministers and the Council of Europe on the independence and impartiality of judges. It is a unique body, made up entirely of judges. Each of the forty-seven member states is represented by well-respected sitting judges. While serving on the CCJE, the judges act in a personal capacity and not on behalf of their country. The CCJE examines issues in working groups and through surveys of member states. It publishes opinions on issues such as how to strengthen the right to an independent and impartial tribunal. These opinions are conveyed to the Council of Europe and its member states to assist in the formation of domestic law. The Magna Carta of European Judges was created in 2010 to provide a summary of the principles found in some of these opinions.
Rule of Law and Justice
The mission of the judiciary is to guarantee the rule of law and to ensure the application of law in an impartial, just, fair, and efficient manner.
Judicial independence is essential and shall be statutory and guaranteed, particularly regarding recruitment, promotion, discipline, and remuneration.
Guarantees of Independence
Judicial selection shall be based on objective criteria, and judges shall receive appropriate remuneration. Disciplinary proceedings shall take place before an independent body. Judges have a right to be members of national or international associations of judges.
Body in Charge of
States shall create a council or another specific body for the judiciary, endowed with competence concerning the status, functioning, and image of judicial institutions. The council shall be composed of judges or a substantial majority of judges elected by their peers.
Access to Justice
Justice shall be transparent. Judges shall take steps to ensure access to swift, efficient, and affordable dispute resolution. Judicial decisions shall be drafted in an accessible, simple, and clear language.
Ethics & Responsibility
Ethical principles, distinguished from disciplinary rules, shall guide judges’ actions. Judges shall define the misconduct which may lead to disciplinary actions.