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Judge rules N.J. troopers can't practice law

By Chris Megerian

NEWARK, N.J. — State Police troopers will not be able to privately practice law, a federal judge has decided.

The decision, filed yesterday, dismisses a lawsuit filed by two trooper unions last year.

"If the troopers were to prevail on this argument, state agencies would be precluded from holding their public employees, specifically attorneys, to a higher ethical standard than those imposed on private attorneys," U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson wrote in her decision.

Two trooper unions -- and 21 troopers working as lawyers -- had argued the state was preventing troopers from pursuing another profession.

But the state said representing clients and enforcing the law presents an inherent conflict of interest, prohibited under a 2007 revision of the state's ethics code.

Frederick J. Gordon, president of the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, said they hoped troopers already practicing law could be exempted.

"We're disappointed in the outcome," he said. "I don't know what our next step is."

The unions argued that troopers' legal work -- such as drafting wills or helping with real estate closings -- does not conflict with their criminal justice work.

The state said even basic legal tasks could cause problems.

"By way of example, if a trooper is retained to draft a will for a client, and happens to come across nefarious, possibly illegal, activity during his review of his client's confidential personal records, the trooper would find himself in an unenviable position, obligated by his duties as an officer of the law to report the crime while simultaneously constrained by his oath as an attorney to protect his client's confidences," reads Wolfson's decision.

The debate centered on a 2007 change to the state's ethics code.

The previous version prohibited almost all attorneys in the department from practicing law outside their job. The revision extended that prohibition to state troopers.

David Wald, spokesman for Attorney General Anne Milgram, praised the judge's decision.

"In rejecting the state troopers' challenge to that rule, Judge Wolfson recognized the potential for conflicts between a private attorney's responsibilities to their clients and the department's law enforcement responsibilities," he said. "She concluded that the prohibition on the private practice of law by state troopers was an appropriate means to preserve the public trust."

Copyright 2009 Star-Ledger

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