In 2017, 2 judicial ethics committees responded to requests from judges about what to do with anonymous gifts.
In Florida Advisory Opinion 2017-11, the judge had received an anonymous birthday card at home that contained $10,000 in cash. The judge immediately turned the money over to the sheriff’s office. After an investigation, the sheriff’s office “determined that the money was almost certainly sent by a person who, at the time the judge received the money, had a case pending before the inquiring judge” but that it did not have enough evidence to charge the litigant. The money remains in the sheriff’s custody.
The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee advised that the code of judicial conduct does not provide guidance for how the judge should dispose of the $10,000 but discouraged the judge from trying “to direct the method and manner in which the gift is disposed of . . . .” The committee explained:
Any such efforts by the inquiring judge calls into question the integrity of the prior judicial proceedings. Additionally, if the inquiring judge were to direct that the money be given to a particular charitable organization or other charitable groups such a decision could be perceived as the judge using the judicial office to solicit funds for a particular group in violation of Canon 5C(3)(b)(iii).
The committee did suggest that the judge could “[d]isclaim any possessory interest in the funds,” leaving it with the sheriff’s office and allowing them to decide what to do with the funds or requesting that they turn it over to the Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Unclaimed Property. See also West Virginia Advisory Opinion (December 5, 2012) (a judge who received an envelope containing an anonymous note and a $20 bill should promptly notify court security and turn the note and the $20 bill over to the sheriff as potential evidence).
In New York Advisory Opinion 2017-87, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics responded to an inquiry from a judge who had had a modest, anonymous gift of food left at her chambers. The identity of the donors was unknown, but the judge believed it came from a religious sect, the members of which have no pending cases before her. Noting “there does not appear to be any basis to conclude that any of the unidentified donors is a ‘party or other person who has come or is likely to come or whose interests have come or are likely to come’” before the judge, the committee stated that the judge may retain the gift.
Recently, several newspapers reported that, in Wisconsin, the day after Judge Angela Sutkiewicz denied Steven Avery’s request for a new trial, someone sent her a floral arrangement at the courthouse with a card that said, “Best wishes from your admirers at SAIG (Steven Avery Is Guilty).” Avery had been convicted in 2007 for the murder of a freelance photographer; the case was profiled in a 2015 hit Netflix film, Making A Murderer. In a letter to counsel in the case, the judge stated that she had “rejected” the floral arrangement and returned it to the flower shop. The judge also contacted the sheriff’s department “in an abundance of caution,” and the sheriff’s department “determined that the sender is neither a party to this case nor is representing a party in this case.” See, e.g., “Judge Cries Foul After Anti-Steven Avery Group Apparently Sends Her Flowers,” by Aaron Keller, Law & Crime (December 2, 2017).