Abusing, lending, or exploiting the prestige of office

In Canon 2B, the 1990 American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct provided:  “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others . . . .”  In the 2007 revisions to the model code, “lend” was changed to “abuse;” thus, Rule 1.3 provides:  “A judge shall not abuse the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.”

According to the ABA reporter’s explanation of the 2007 changes, “the term ‘lend’ created unnecessary confusion,” causing some judges to decline to write letters of recommendation for their clerks and suggesting judges should not identify themselves as judges on the covers of their books to bolster credibility and increase sales.  The ABA did not consider either of those uses to be problematic and concluded “abuse” rather than “lend” more accurately characterized the conduct being prohibited.   (The confusion reported by the ABA is puzzling as a comment to the old canon explicitly stated that “a judge may, based on the judge’s personal knowledge, serve as a reference or provide a letter of recommendation” as long as the judge remains “sensitive to possible abuse of the prestige of office.”  And advisory opinions have consistently allowed judges to use their titles on books they author, particularly if the judicial title is relevant because the book is law-related.)

As illustrated by an article in the summer 2018 Judicial Conduct Reporter, different advisory opinions have interpreted the term “abuse” differently in the context of promotional campaigns for alma maters and other organizations.

Emphasizing that Rule 1.3 prohibits “abuse,” not simply “use,” the Arizona judicial ethics committee advised, with some caveats, that a judge may participate in a recorded interview about the role his college played in his professional development and career achievements.  Arizona Advisory Opinion 2018-1.  The opinion identified several contexts in which the code permits judges to “use” the prestige of judicial office in extra-judicial activities:  writing letters of recommendation on judicial letterhead in certain circumstances; using judicial titles at fund-raising events concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice; endorsing projects and programs related to the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice; and including a judge’s title and judicial office on letterhead for educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic organizations “if comparable designations are used for other persons.”  Concluding that the code “implicitly deems such extra-judicial activities proper ‘uses’ of the prestige of judicial office, as opposed to ‘abuses,’” the Arizona committee advised that, similarly, allowing judges to participate in recorded interviews to promote the not-for-profit educational institutions they attended interprets “Rule 1.3 as a ‘rule of reason,’ focusing on ‘abuse” of the prestige of judicial office, and giving meaning to the Code’s encouragement of community involvement . . . .”

In contrast, based on its analysis of the meaning of “abuse,” the Massachusetts judicial ethics committee advised that a judge may not participate in a university’s video profile series featuring prominent alumni discussing how their undergraduate education helped them identify goals, aspire to a career, and achieve success.  Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 2017-2.  The opinion stated that “abuse” does not require “a bad purpose or bad effect” but only that the use be in any way “incompatible with the judicial role,” emphasizing that any collateral misuse of the judicial office to advance personal or economic interests undermines public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.  The committee concluded that the university’s clear wish “to benefit from [the judge’s] esteemed position in the legal profession” constituted an abuse of the prestige of judicial office.

Committees interpreting the term “lend” have also advised judges not to participate in university promotional campaigns.  See California Judges Association Advisory Opinion 72 ( 2016) (a judge may not participate in a university’s video entitled “Our Successful Graduates” that would be posted on the university’s web-page to be viewed by potential students); Kansas Advisory Opinion JE 159 (2007) (a judge may not allow the university the judge attended to use a picture of the judge in a newspaper advertisement); Wisconsin Advisory Opinion 2005-1 (a judge’s image, name, and title may not be featured on a billboard as part of an advertising campaign by one of the University of Wisconsin System campuses).


* * *
The Illinois code of judicial conduct still has the lend version of the rule, and the Courts Commission recently reprimanded an appellate judge for soliciting paid speaking engagements using his judicial position, finding he not only lent the prestige of office to advance his private interests, but exploited his judicial office in financial and business dealings, engaged in financial and business dealings with persons likely to come before his court, and had an active role in managing a business.  In re Steigman (Illinois Courts Commission August 13, 2018).

The judge testified that he had been writing and speaking on legal topics for decades to share his love of the law and educate the public.  He began soliciting paid speaking opportunities after an organizer of continuing legal education seminars for prosecutors offered to pay him $1,250 for a 2-day presentation.  The judge’s income was $32,000 to $34,000 for over 24 presentations over 2 years.

The judge made over 120 solicitations.  The judge used judicial letterhead for most of his solicitations to law enforcement groups.  The judge initially sent solicitations to medical societies and hospitals by his work e-mail but switched to judicial letterhead because the response to the e-mail solicitation was “tepid.”  If he did not receive a response with either method, he sometimes followed up by telephone.  He had his secretary assist him with the letters and e-mail solicitations by dictating them for her to transcribe as he would any other correspondence.  He paid all the postage for the letters himself.

Noting that the code prohibits judges from soliciting donations for charitable organizations, the Commission stated that, “[t]he same principles apply with even greater force when the ‘cause’ for which the judge is soliciting is a business or commercial activity that serves the judge’s own financial benefit.”  The Commission found that the judge’s use of stationery and other judicial resources to advance his “burgeoning speaking business was an exploitation of his judicial office . . . .”  It explained:

Respondent pursued the opportunity to give paid presentations on the law with energy, using judicial letterhead stationery to increase the likelihood of a positive response to his solicitations and making follow-up calls to recipients who had not responded.  Respondent’s zeal in this pursuit arose primarily from his genuine belief that he was providing a public benefit by explaining legal concepts to non-lawyers.  Nevertheless, while his motives may have been pure, the fact that the “public service” he was providing also enriched him financially created the danger that recipients of his solicitation might feel coerced to hire him, or might think that hiring him to give a presentation would cause him to favor their interests in cases that came before him.

Further, although the Commission agreed that merely being paid to speak or teach may not constitute actively managing a business and emphasized that it was not criticizing or trying to inhibit the practice of judges educating the public regarding the law, it concluded that, by directly soliciting paid speaking engagements and following up to urge reluctant recipients to hire him, the judge “went beyond simply earning a fee for permitted activity, and instead actively sought to increase his extrajudicial sources of revenues.”


* * *
The Texas code of judicial conduct also still has the “lend” version of the rule, and a Special Court of Review Appointed by the Texas Supreme Court recently publicly admonished a judge for referring to his judicial title and position to promote a project with his wife called “divorce in peace” that included a book, website, and an on-line referral service.  In re Roach, Judgment and public admonition (Texas Special Court of Review July 24, 2018).

The judge and his wife, an attorney who conducts mediations in family law cases, co-authored the book Divorce in Peace:  Alternatives to War from a Judge and Lawyer.  The book’s front cover lists “John and Laura Roach” as authors.  The back cover has a photo of the authors together, next to the statement:  “John and Laura have spent their careers, as lawyers and a judge, trying to help couples avoid the pitfalls of high conflict divorces.”  An “About the Authors” section describes John Roach as “a Texas district court judge with a true passion for the law” and states that, “[a]s a judge, he has had a front row seat to over 10,000 family law cases.”  The book’s text does not refer to “Judge John Roach” or “Judge Roach,” but the book has sections entitled “Judge’s Perspective” and “Mediator’s Perspective” that offer additional comment on particular topics.

The book’s introduction refers to the “attorneys, financial planners, mental health professionals and others — who are committed to the same principles of peaceful resolution” and “are listed at our website, http://www.divorceinpeace.com.”  Professionals can be listed on the website without charge with a photo, resumé, practice-area description, and e-mail address.  Professionals who choose a subscription option, which ranged from $59.99 a month to $199 a month, post additional information such as client reviews, blog posts, articles, and videos.

When the book was published, a brochure was mailed to some 18,000 recipients, including about 12,000 Texas attorneys who identified themselves with the State Bar as family law practitioners.  The brochure repeated the website address several times and described the benefits for attorneys who paid fees to subscribe to the network.

A series of promotional videos were made for the project.  For example, in 1 video, entitled “About Us,” the judge and his wife were featured with a picture of a gavel; the judge discusses his expertise as an elected state district court judge who has presided over 10,000 family law cases.  The judge decided not to use the videos after viewing them because he was concerned that portions may violate the canons.  However, the videos were available on the website for approximately 30 days and were still accessible on YouTube as of May 2018.  According to the judge, he had been unsuccessful in his repeated efforts to remove the videos from YouTube because he did not have the necessary user name and password and could not obtain the information from the production company in India that had helped to create the videos.

The court stated that many discipline cases in which judges were found to have impermissibly lent the prestige of office to advance private interests involved “judicial intervention in a discrete court matter or a particular event such as an arrest.”  The court noted that the “guidance regarding ongoing business dealings involving a judge or a judge’s family member is more limited and highly context-sensitive.”

Describing a spectrum, the court explained that, at one end, “are plainly impermissible situations involving a judge who directly uses his or her authority over litigants to coerce actions that will benefit the judge financially.”  At the other end of the spectrum, the court stated, “judges are permitted to write and publish books on legal and non-legal topics; identify themselves as judges in biographical descriptions; and sell books they have written so long as they do not exploit the judicial title in doing so.”

The court concluded that, “[t]his case falls in the middle of the spectrum” because the judge did not direct “coercive conduct towards litigants or attorneys appearing in his court to compel actions from which he stood to benefit financially” but the “circumstances involve more than individual sales of a law-related book written by a judge.”  The court acknowledged that there was no reference to the judge as “Judge John Roach” or “Judge Roach” in the book or in the referral service brochure and no evidence the judge was photographed in his robe in connection with the book and website.  However, it stated that his “judicial role is readily apparent based on the first eight words of the book’s ‘About the Authors’ section” and “[l]ittle effort is required for readers to discern that the ‘Judge’ referenced on the front and back covers is John Roach, and that the ‘Judge’s Perspective’ highlighted throughout the book comes from him.”  The court described the project as “structured to create a financial gain arising from attorneys who paid for subscriptions in hopes of being hired by readers who acted on the book’s multiple invitations to visit the website and find Divorce in Peace-affiliated attorneys.”  The court concluded that the judge’s “participation in aspects of this interconnected project” improperly exploited his judicial position in business activities.

There is more information on the ethical implications of “The judge as author” in an article in the spring 2013 issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter.  Shortly after the article was published, the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct issued comprehensive advice on promotional activity associated with extrajudicial writings and publications in U.S. Advisory Opinion 114 (2014).

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s