Gifts, art, pronouns, and ex parte communications

Gifts
In a recent opinion, the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions advised that judges “may exchange modest gifts with their courtroom staff.”  California Expedited Opinion 2021-39. However, it explained ed that judges should “treat all staff equally and maintain proper decorum” should not pressure staff to reciprocate.  Moreover, the opinion added that judges should not give gifts that are “offensive, demeaning, or otherwise inappropriate” or gifts that could “be perceived as harassment.”

The opinion noted that “acknowledging birthdays, holidays and other special occasions can be an appropriate way to build morale among a judge and his or her staff.”  However, it emphasized that, “to the extent reasonably possible, judges should endeavor to treat their staff equally.”  For example, it stated that judges should not give “significantly disproportionate” gifts to different staff members or only “celebrate the birthdays of certain of their staff while ignoring the birthdays of others.”  Moreover, it advised judges to be “sensitive to and respect the fact that staff may come from different faiths and traditions” and “to the extent reasonably possible, . . . tailor any gifts that they give to align with the heritage and belief systems of their staff.”

The opinion advised judges to tell their staff that “there is no obligation or expectation” that they will give the judge a gift in return for the judge’s gift and warned judges not to implicitly pressure their staff for such an exchange, noting that staff are more likely to feel that reciprocation is required if the judge’s gift is expensive or extravagant.  Thus, the committee directed judges to “keep any gifts modest” reflecting “the power and financial imbalances between themselves and their staff.”  Further, it stated that “judges should not solicit staff for a group gift.”

The committee also stated that judges should not “give gifts that are offensive or demeaning,” for example, a gift that is “obscene, profane or degrading in any way to the recipient or to others” or that is a practical joke.  Finally, it stated that judges should not “give gifts that would be perceived as harassing, for example if given in the expectation of fostering a romantic or sexual relationship with a staff person.”

Art
In a recent opinion, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics stated that judges may undertake “a project to contextualize existing art and memorials at the courthouse and install new thematic artworks created by artists from marginalized groups” in collaboration with a non-profit historical society.  New York Advisory Opinion 2020-202.  The committee noted that the judge should first obtain any required administrative approvals.

The inquiring judges were members of a court’s committee on bias and noted that, “[w]hile the law in the United States has proven to be dynamic, and gradually has changed to include protections for marginalized groups, the art in our courthouse has remained static, and displays aesthetics that reflect a less inclusive, and less just, America.”  To make the courthouse more inclusive and educational, the judges wanted to work with “scholars of legal history and architecture to help create signage and other materials that would ‘interrogate our public art and place it in the context of our nation’s history.’”  The judges would prepare written plans for the project, and the Historical Society of the New York Courts would apply for grants.  After funds were received, the judges would collaborate with the Society in their allocation.

The advisory committee concluded that the project was not only “ethically permissible” but supported the court system’s “efforts to eliminate bias and prejudice and thereby promote public confidence in the judiciary.”

Pronouns
In a recent opinion, the New York Committee stated that, when “a party or attorney has advised the court that their preferred gender pronoun is ‘they,’ a judge may not require them to use ‘he’ or ‘she.’”  New York Advisory Opinion 2021-9.  The inquiring judge was concerned that “the use of ‘they’ could create confusion in the record as to the number of persons to whom a speaker is referring.”

The committee recognized that “a judge may take reasonable steps to ensure the clarity of the record, including courteously referring to an individual by surname and/or their role in the proceeding as appropriate.”  However, it stated, “a judge must be careful to avoid any appearance of hostility to an individual’s gender identity or gender expression.”  The Committee explained:  “Adopting and announcing the sort of rigid policy proposed here could result in transgender, nonbinary or genderfluid individuals feeling pressured to choose between the ill-fitting gender pronouns of “he” or “she.”  This could not only make them feel unwelcome but also distract from the adjudicative process.”  Therefore, it concluded, “the described policy, if adopted, could undermine public confidence in the judiciary’s impartiality.”

It also found that there was “no reason for a judge to pre-emptively adopt a policy barring all court participants, in all circumstances, from being referred to by singular ‘they’. . . .”  It noted that “they” “is one of three personal pronouns in the English language” and has been recognized as a grammatically correct use for an individual, citing Merriam-Webster’s addition of that usage to its dictionary definition in September 2019 and its choice as the 2019 Word-of-the-Year.

The Committee expressed its trust that judges can “handle an expressed preference for the use of singular ‘they’ on a case-by-case basis, adopting reasonable procedures in their discretion to ensure the clarity of the record as needed.”  It also noted that a judge could make “adjustments over the course of a proceeding” if they find that “an initial approach was unsuccessful or confusing.”

Ex parte communications
In a recent opinion, the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee advised that a judge is not required to recuse from a case after an unsolicited ex parte communication from a litigant if the judge halts the communication as soon as possible, disregards it, and promptly advises all parties.  Illinois Advisory Opinion 2020-1.  The committee did note that judges may “wish to insulate themselves, to the extent possible, from such communications,” for example, “by issuing a standing order to make clear to non-lawyers that such communications are not allowed.”

The inquiry came from a judge who had received an email from a self-represented litigant with “extensive and substantive information about a case.”  The email was sent directly to the judge, and opposing counsel was not copied.  The litigant had learned the judge’s email address when the judge, in order to schedule virtual hearings, communicated by email with the litigant and the attorney representing the other side. 

The committee stated that, after receiving an unsolicited ex parte communication, a judge’s first step was “to ensure that the ex parte communication is disclosed to the other party.”  The opinion noted that “an ex parte communication received via email makes possible a verbatim disclosure of the communication,” which “diminishes the opposing party’s concern about whether it knows the full substance of the communication made to the judge.”  The inquiring judge had “immediately notified the other party of the communication.”

After disclosure, according to the committee, the judge should determine “whether, as a result of the ex parte communication, the judge’s neutrality has been affected; in other words, has the judge become actually biased based on what was learned?,” which would require recusal.  The committee noted that the “inquiring judge did not feel that receipt of the communication affected their neutrality,” adding that “it would be unusual for a judge to be unable to compartmentalize” information they could consider from information they could not consider.

Finally, the committee advised that the judge should analyze whether the ex parte communication raised reasonable questions about the judge’s impartiality, noting that recusal “should be required only ‘if additional circumstances give rise to an appearance of bias,’ such as the ‘judge’s initiation of an ex parte communication.’”  An ex parte communication is less likely to require recusal under that test, the committee explained, if the judge did not initiate it, “shut[] it down” when it was recognized, and promptly disclosed the communication to the other side.  The opinion emphasized that “a judge’s initiation of an ex parte communication might create concerns about the judge’s impartiality, but the same is not true when some other person initiates the communication.  The action of another does not implicitly create any inference about the judge’s impartiality.”  The committee also noted that a rule requiring recusal following any ex parte communication “’would allow a party to remove a judge from a case by initiating an ex parte contact, which would encourage unethical ploys and allow manipulation of the judicial process.’” 

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