When a judge’s relative is a political candidate

In the olden days (under the 1972 American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct), a judge was supposed to “encourage members of his family to adhere to the same standards of political conduct that apply to him,” which included discouraging family members from running for political office.  The 1990 revisions to the model code eliminated that duty to dissuade (except with respect to a judge or judicial candidate’s own campaign), reflecting “awareness that the families of judges and judicial candidates are composed of individuals with independent lives, interests and rights, and that any requirement that a judge or judicial candidate seek to influence or control the behavior of those individuals must be narrowly tailored.”  Milord, The Development of the [1990] ABA Judicial Code, at 49 (1992).

However, as a comment added to Rule 4.1 in the 2007 model code revisions explains:

Although members of the families of judges and judicial candidates are free to engage in their own political activity, including running for public office, there is no “family exception” to the prohibition . . . against a judge or candidate publicly endorsing candidates for public office.  A judge or judicial candidate must not become involved in, or publicly associated with, a family member’s political activity or campaign for public office.  To avoid public misunderstanding, judges and judicial candidates should take, and should urge members of their families to take, reasonable steps to avoid any implication that they endorse any family member’s candidacy or other political activity.

Thus, a judge cannot:

  • Solicit votes, funds, or support for a relative/candidate in person, in writing, through political appearances, by telephone, or through the media
  • Give speeches in support of a relative/candidate
  • Inform friends of the relative’s candidacy even without soliciting votes or support
  • Ask an individual why he is backing the relative’s opponent
  • Deliver and erect signs for a relative’s campaign or attach political disclaimers to the signs
  • Solicit persons to display campaign signs in their yards
  • Wear a relative’s campaign button in public or in chambers
  • Hand out a family member’s campaign literature or signs
  • Place a campaign bumper sticker on her car
  • Act or appear to act as a political advisor for the family member’s campaign

There is a split in judicial ethics opinions on whether a judge’s may provide behind-the-scenes support for a candidate/relative’s campaign although the majority advise that a judge should not perform manual labor such as compiling voter or contributor lists and stuffing envelopes

In most states, a judge may be included in a family picture in campaign materials for a family member and be identified by name and relationship to the candidate as long as the judge/relative is not identified as a judge, referred to by title, or pictured in robes or a courthouse setting.

Whether a judge can accompany a candidate/relative to political events varies from state to state, depending in part on whether the judge is prohibited from attending political events in general.  Similarly, whether a judge can make a financial contribution to the campaign of a spouse or other family member depends on each state’s rule regarding political contributions by judges in general.

The issues that arise for a judge when a family member is running for office are discussed in Political Activities by Members of a Judge’s Family, which is available to be downloaded on the web-site of the Center for Judicial Ethics.  Below are summaries of relevant advisory opinions and discipline decisions issued since that paper was up-dated in 2010.

  • Family members of a judge or a judicial candidate may engage in their own political conduct and run for office, but a judge or candidate cannot become involved in a family member’s campaign and must take reasonable steps to avoid the suggestion or implication that he endorses the family member’s candidacy. Arkansas Advisory Opinion 2009-4
  • A judge whose son is running for an open judicial position may attend his son’s post-election gathering after all polls have closed. Florida Advisory Opinion 2014-16
  • A judge may provide behind-the-scenes assistance to the campaign of a relative/candidate, such as preparing envelopes for campaign materials to be mailed to potential voters or donors. A judge may be named or have her photograph in a family member’s campaign materials as long as there is no reference to her title or position, she is not pictured in her robe, and she appears simply as a member of the candidate’s family.  Indiana Advisory Opinion 2-2014.  
  • A judge whose son is a candidate in a contested primary to replace her after she retires may attend a political event at which her son is speaking or that he will attend but may not solicit signatures for a nominating petition for him or sign the petition, contribute money or time to her son’s campaign, place yard signs for his candidacy, go door-to-door, pass out campaign literature, or publicly support her son’s candidacy. Kansas Advisory Opinion 179 (2014).
  • A judge may not accompany her spouse, who is running for office, to fund-raisers, rallies, and other campaign events. Maryland Advisory Opinion Request 2015-47.  
  • A judge should not have angrily confronting a man who was putting up signs opposing his brother’s gubernatorial candidacy. Stephen, Reprimand (New Hampshire Judicial Conduct Committee August 25, 2011).
  • A judge may attend a reception in honor of her child’s election to a public office if she clearly is present only as a parent celebrating her child’s accomplishment and avoids any appearance that she is or was involved in partisan political activity connected with her child’s campaign.  New York Advisory Opinion 2012-169
  • A judge may be depicted in a family photograph on his child’s political campaign literature as long he does not wear a judicial robe and he is not identified as a judge. New York Advisory Opinion 2010-75.  
  • A master-in-equity may appear in a family photo used in her spouse’s political campaign and attend his election night party, debates, and speeches as long as she is not identified by title, attendance is on her own time, and her membership in the judiciary is not publicized or announced.  South Carolina Advisory Opinion 7-2012.  

Next week:  When a judge’s relative supports a political candidate
In 2 weeks:  Political activities at a judge’s home


3 thoughts on “When a judge’s relative is a political candidate

  1. Pingback: When a judge’s relative supports a political candidate | Judicial ethics and discipline

  2. Pingback: Family political activities at a judge’s home | Judicial ethics and discipline

  3. Pingback: Political activity by members of a judge’s family | Judicial ethics and discipline

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