NEW YORK CITY — The brother of a school teacher who died of Legionnaires' disease has been “advised” by a state judicial committee to stop talking to the media about his sibling's death because he is a judge, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics told John Rouse, a Suffolk County civil court judge, to keep quiet after he went public discussing his brother James’s death and questioning the city's response to it.
James Rouse, a city public school teacher in the South Bronx, died on April 30 from the disease.
The judge and his family criticized the city’s response to his death as virtually non-existent — inspectors never even visited the school where he worked — and they believe James Rouse was the “canary in the coal mine" for a more recent outbreak that killed 12 people.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, insisted the outbreak began on July 30 and said there was little the city could do following Rouse's death until other cases emerged.
After Judge Rouse spoke to DNAinfo New York, other media outlets reached out to him, including ABC TV’s “World New Tonight” and Fox News.
The growing media attention prompted Judge Rouse to reach out to the state’s Judicial Advisory Committee, which encourages jurists to seek its counsel on any potentially ethical issue.
He was surprised at its response — he was cautioned that judges are not supposed to talk about cases presently involved in litigation or any that might be in the future, even if it was about his brother.
Since James Rouse's death could end up in litigation, he decided to seek a formal opinion from the committee, which could take months, and subsequently declined other media requests.
Experts on free speech decried the committee's opinion.
“There is absolutely no valid reason for him not to speak given his personal involvement in this matter,” said Martin Garbus, one of the country’s foremost experts on the First Amendment.
“He has a legitimate First Amendment right to speak out and he can give his opinion if it does not directly effect his (court) docket.”
Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, added that “if ethics authorities are suggesting that a judge cannot speak out about any public controversy that might lead to a lawsuit, that goes way too far.”
Referring to New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s recent public opinions on a wide range of issues, including the tragic death of Eric Garner, Dunn added, “It is apparent from the frequent public statements of the state’s chief judge, judges retain their First Amendment right to participate in public debate so long as their speech does not interfere with their judicial duties.”
Sources within the state’s Office of Court Administration, which oversees the advisory committee, were also stunned by the message to Judge Rouse.
“This is ridiculous, preposterous,” said one high level official.
“Judges have some restrictions, but (Judge Rouse) is talking narrowly about a personal matter, he is sounding a warning. Why should he shut up about this when it involves his brother?
"Judge Rouse could be the Paul Revere on this tragic outbreak.”
A spokesman for the Office of Court Administration declined comment. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, which oversees that department, did not respond to a request for comment.
Calls to the Advisory Committee itself were not returned.
Meanwhile, Judge Rouse says he will continue to “heed the committee's advice” while he waits for a hearing next month on whether he is free to speak again about his brother’s death.