Prestige of judicial letterhead

For the session on the use of the prestige of judicial office at this week’s 24th National College on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, a list was compiled of the 37 states that have code provisions or advisory opinions with guidance on the use of official judicial stationery for letters of recommendation.

  • 18 jurisdictions have adopted the comment to Rule 1.3 of the 2007 ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct that a judge may use official letterhead to write a reference or recommendation “if the judge indicates that the reference is personal and if there is no likelihood that the use of the letterhead would reasonably be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure by reason of the judicial office.”
  • 1 state code provides “when using court stationery for letters of reference an indication should be made that the opinion expressed is personal and not an opinion of the court.”
  • 2 states have advisory opinions stating that a judge should indicate that a letter of recommendation is “personal and official.”
  • 3 states have a code provision that allows the use of judicial stationery, without the model’s requirement that there be an indication that the reference is personal, but with the model’s caveat that “there is no likelihood that the use of the letterhead would reasonably be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure by reason of the judicial office,” or a similar statement.
  • 6 states have adopted codes that expressly allow the use of official stationery with no caveats, at least no express caveats.
  • 1 state, without expressly allowing the use of official stationery with no caveats, vaguely suggests it is permissible.
  • 1 state refers in advisory notes to the 2007 model comment, without indicating agreement or disagreement, and refers to an advisory opinion allowing use of official stationery only if the recommendation is based on the judge’s position in the court system, without expressly approving or disapproving of that opinion.
  • 1 state has a code provision allowing the use of official stationery only for recommendations for employment and education purposes.
  • 1 state has a code provision prohibiting the use of official stationery to write all letters of recommendation.
  • 3 states have advisory opinions prohibiting the use of official stationery to write all letters of recommendation.

After the list was compiled, Massachusetts became the 38th state with such guidance when, on Thursday, it adopted a new code of judicial conduct, effective January 1.  With respect to judicial recommendations, the new Massachusetts code has the following comment:

A judge may provide an educational or employment reference or recommendation for an individual based on the judge’s personal knowledge.  The judge may use official letterhead and sign the recommendation using the judicial title if the judge’s knowledge of the applicant’s qualifications arises from observations made in the judge’s judicial capacity.  The recommendation may not be accompanied by conduct that reasonably would be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure on the recipient to hire or admit the applicant.  Where a judge’s knowledge of the applicant’s qualifications does not arise from observations made in the judge’s judicial capacity, the judge may not use official letterhead, court email, or the judicial title, but the judge may send a private letter stating the judge’s personal recommendation.  The judge may refer to the judge’s current position and title in the body of the private letter only if it is relevant to some substantive aspect of the recommendation.

The comment also notes that “court hiring policies may impose additional restrictions on recommendations for employment in the judicial branch, and the law may impose additional restrictions on recommendations for employment in state government.”

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