Public outreach on the rule of law and judicial independence

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Committee on Judicial Ethics issued a letter opinion on public outreach in support of the rule of law and judicial independence in response to an inquiry from a judge who wishes to speak to community groups under the auspices of a court-sponsored public outreach program.   Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 2017-1.  The judge had asked “(1) whether judges may reassure the public, including groups composed of immigrants or religious minorities, that the courts of Massachusetts are and will remain committed to the rule of law, including the protection of the rights of all persons to due process, equal protection of the laws, equal access to the courts, and fair and respectful treatment; and (2) whether judges may respond to statements made by public officials and others that appear to reflect misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary in our system of government or manifest disrespect for the rule of law.”

The committee noted that the code “places parameters around judges’ remarks, even on permitted subjects such as defending the rule of law or speaking about the administration of justice” and that, “[i]n deciding whether it is appropriate to accept any particular speaking engagement, judges must consider the overall context in which the remarks would be made.”  The committee also emphasized that “[a]n underlying premise of the Code is that a judge’s fair and impartial decisions are the most important defense against threats to judicial independence and the rule of law.”

The committee advised that, subject to the parameters of the code:

[J]udges may reach out to individuals, and associations of individuals, who may feel vulnerable due to their race, religion, national origin, citizenship status, or other attribute(s), and remind them that the Massachusetts courts are and will remain committed to upholding the right of every person to obtain equal justice before an independent and impartial judge.

The opinion also stated that, “in prepared or extemporaneous remarks,” subject to the parameters of the code, judges may respond to comments by public officials or others that appear to reflect misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary or manifest disrespect for the rule of law.  The committee explained:

It is proper for a judge to dispel misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary and to emphasize the importance of respect for the rule of law, so long as the judge’s remarks preserve the dignity of judicial office, would not lead a reasonable person to question the judge’s ability to impartially administer the law, and avoid the implication the judge is influenced by, or appears to be influenced by, partisan or political interests.

 

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