A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • A court may, with an appropriate disclaimer, allow a non-profit legal aid program to set up a table outside a courtroom to offer financially eligible parties free legal advice, pro se pleadings, and, in some cases, representation. New Mexico Opinion 2017-7.
  • A judge who is a firearm licensing officer must not initiate licensing revocation/suspension proceedings or conduct one without a prosecuting agency. New York Opinion 2017-166.
  • A judge may ask legislators to suggest potential peer mentors to work with veteran-defendants in the veterans treatment court or authorize his resource coordinator or mentor coordinator to make such a request. New York Opinion 2017-123.
  • A judge is not required to disqualify based on credible information that an attorney in a case is “thinking” of running against her and may not ask the attorney directly whether the attorney intends to do so. Florida Opinion 2018-3.
  • A judge may not preside in an application to seal a conviction if he was the district attorney when the defendant was convicted. New York Opinion 2017-162.
  • A county magistrate who has begun dating the county sheriff is disqualified from any matters in which employees of the sheriff appear as witnesses. South Carolina Opinion 2-2018.
  • A judge may serve as master of ceremonies for a close personal friend’s public swearing-in ceremony for a non-judicial office, subject to limitations. New York Opinion 2017-174.
  • A judge may sing the national anthem at a not-for-profit organization’s fund-raiser provided her participation is unannounced and ancillary to the event. New York Opinion 2017-174.
  • A judge may help plan, play in, and invite others to play in a golf tournament to raise funds for an endowed scholarship honoring her late son if her name and title are not used to promote the tournament. Colorado Opinion 2018-1.
  • A judge may permit a legal aid organization to list the judge as a member of the host committee on an invitation to an event to raise funds for a program that trains lawyers for pro bono representation in a specific area of the law. Florida Opinion 2018-5.
  • A judge must not chair a Red Cross blood drive or solicit blood donors. New York Opinion 2018-5.
  • Co-judges may make a charitable contribution to their house of worship by purchasing an advertisement in the weekly bulletin identifying themselves by name and title and signing it “your local magistrates.” New York Opinion 2018-5.
  • A judicial official may not comment on the character of the municipal chief of police for a profile in a local newspaper. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2018-1.
  • A judge may participate as president of an ethnic bar association in a meeting with a district attorney-elect’s transition team on issues involving the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, subject to conditions and limitations. New York Opinion 2017-179.
  • A judge who serves in criminal court may preside over a mock trial used to educate police officers about court and courtroom procedure but should not critique the performance of members of law enforcement. Florida Opinion 2018-1.
  • A support magistrate and his family may accept donations and services from a not-for-profit organization for their special-needs child, may permit media coverage, and may permit the organization to describe the services on its web-site with family photographs that include the judge, provided he takes reasonable steps to ensure the organization does not exploit his position for fund-raising or promotional purposes. New York Opinion 2017-106.
  • A full-time magistrate judge may accompany her adult child who was the victim of a felony to court appearances in the general sessions court. South Carolina Opinion 1-2018.

 

A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • If a judge has an honest, reasonable, and articulable basis to conclude that he should recuse from a case, his recusal does not violate his obligation to hear and decide matters. Maryland Request 2017-28.
  • An appellate justice is not required to disqualify from a matter when she is an acquaintance of leading members of associations that have filed an amicus curiae brief. California Oral Advice 2017-21.
  • A judge is disqualified if an attorney from a law firm in which his brother-in-law is a partner appears as counsel in a case, subject to remittitur. A judge may enter an agreed order appointing her cousin as a mediator as long as the parties initiated the selection of her cousin.  Florida Opinion 2017-20.
  • The administrative judge of a family law division may send letters of appreciation to attorneys who have served as volunteer pro bono guardians ad litem as long as the letters are general and are not signed by the judges who presided over the cases for which the representation was provided. The court may recognize attorneys who served as pro bono guardians ad litem as a group at a bar luncheon or similar function.  Florida Opinion 2017-23.
  • A judge may attend a free public conference on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children that will focus on identifying and assisting at-risk youth. New York Opinion 2017-146.
  • A judge may speak about landlord/tenant law at a free educational forum organized by elected officials, subject to general limitations on judicial speech. New York Opinion 2017-155.
  • A family court judge may personally solicit donations of artwork by children for display at the court from local teachers and/or children who have pending permanency hearings with the artist identified by first name or initials. New York Opinion 2017-152.
  • A judge should not use the internet to gather adjudicative facts or information about the activities or characteristics of a litigant or other participant in a matter unless the information is subject to proper judicial notice. ABA Opinion 478 (2017).
  • A judge’s repeated or unjustified tardiness in opening court sessions violates ethical rules and can lead to judicial discipline. If a recess is required to attend to other official business, a judge should as a best practice open court on time and communicate personally or through court staff to those in the courtroom when court will reconvene and the reasons for the recess.  North Carolina Formal Opinion 2017-2.
  • A judge may participate in a community parade but should consider whether the participation will adversely reflect on her independence, integrity, or impartiality based on the sponsor and purpose of the parade, should not appear with non-judicial candidates or elected officials in the parade or on their floats/vehicles, and should not permit any banner or signage displaying her name and office to appear on floats or vehicles of political parties, candidates, or officeholders. Ohio Opinion 2017-8.
  • On behalf of a non-profit legal clinic, a judge may send to attorneys a letter that states, “I encourage you to consider contacting [the named attorney at the clinic] (contact information below) or another such agency to discuss taking just one case in the coming months.” Maryland Request 2017-35.
  • A judge may accept an award from a local voluntary bar association at an annual gala that raises funds for scholarships for law students. Florida Opinion 2017-22.
  • Judges and court employees may not, as part of a county fund-raising drive, conduct meetings to solicit donations to United Way or post fliers promoting such donations in the courthouse. New Mexico Opinion 2017-4.
  • A judge who immediately resigned after learning that an investment club he joined was a for-profit entity is not required to self-report. New  York Opinion 2017-156.
  • A judge may not, in a “search for happiness and harmony,” write a newspaper article volunteering to travel anywhere in the state and, free of charge, “mediate any conflict, teach a law class, math or someone how to read, coach a sport, build or paint any fence, pull weeds, clean yards, or do anything that requires only time and effort to help a stranger.” New Mexico Opinion 2017-3.
  • An incumbent judge may appear in her robe in campaign photographs. A slate of judges may appear together in robes in a campaign photograph.  Maryland Request 2017-37.
  • A judge may appear in a video that will be used in her brother’s congressional campaign as long as she is not identified as a judge. Kansas Opinion 185 (2017).
  • A judge may not contribute to his spouse’s campaign for political office, but his spouse may contribute to her own campaign even from community property funds in a joint checking account, although the judge should urge her to create a separate account from which to contribute. New Mexico Opinion 2017-1.

A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • A judge presiding over a civil matter involving allegations that a non-party minor committed sexual abuse should not solicit an attorney to represent the minor pro bono during a deposition to protect his right against self-incrimination and should not direct the parties’ attorneys to solicit such representation. New York Opinion 2017-114.
  • A court may establish a self-help center to provide legal assistance to persons of limited means who otherwise would not be represented and may appoint and compensate lawyers as independent contractors for the center to provide limited scope representation that does not include representation before the court. Ohio Opinion 2017-7.
  • A municipal court may house a customer service kiosk purchased by the city that asks, “Was our staff professional and courteous?” and allows users to select 1 to 4 “smiley” faces to indicate their level of satisfaction. South Carolina Opinion 13-2017.
  • The supreme court justices who are named as defendants are required to recuse themselves from a case filed by an inmate, but the other justices may hear the case. Utah Informal Opinion 2017-2.
  • Absent a relationship between the judge and a former law clerk that would otherwise require the judge to recuse, a judge is not required to disclose that a lawyer in a case is a former law clerk. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-21.
  • A judge may permit a court attorney to raise funds to offset the costs of an international adoption through fund-raisers away from the courthouse during non-working hours and to use personal social media accounts to promote the fund-raisers. The judge may attend and make contributions from her personal funds but may not assist with any solicitation.  New York Opinion 2017-68.
  • A judge’s wife may chair a motorcycle poker run to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research and treatment, and the judge may ride in the event if he does not help plan it or solicit donations. West Virginia Advisory Opinion 2017-11.
  • A judge may not participate in a “dancing with the stars” fund-raiser for United Way in which people pay $5 to vote for their favorite dancer. West Virginia Opinion 2017-15.
  • A judge may sing in a band that plays without compensation at fund-raisers for law-related organizations, non-fund-raising events, or private parties hosted by or honoring lawyers if the judge would disqualify herself from cases involving those lawyers because of personal friendship but may not sing at political fund-raisers, fund-raisers for non-law-related organizations, or private parties hosted by or honoring other lawyers who are reasonably likely to appear before her. A judge may not as an independent contractor sing in a band that performs for a fee even if she declines her share.  Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2017-4.
  • A judge may speak to community groups about the Constitutional Revision Commission as part of a Florida Bar-sponsored “Protect Florida Democracy” program. Florida Opinion 2017-15
  • A judge may not participate in a “Call to Service and Compassion Workshop” to honor child abuse victims and survivors hosted by a child advocacy center. New York Opinion 2017-108.
  • With conditions, a new judge may complete his terms as a member of the board of directors of a county bar association and of the executive board of the state bar association. Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2017-3

Court-annexed self-help clinic

In an advisory opinion, the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct approved a court’s proposal to establish a self-help center where court-appointed lawyers would provide short-term legal assistance to persons of limited means who otherwise would be unrepresented.  Ohio Advisory Opinion 2017-7.  The lawyers would not represent the litigants before the court but would provide general legal assistance and information, explaining court procedures, addressing service of process issues, ensuring that litigants file the correct court forms, and making referrals to sources or persons for additional information or assistance.

Comment 4 to Rule 2.2 of the Ohio code of judicial conduct provides that a judge may make reasonable accommodations to ensure self-represented litigants the opportunity to have their matters fairly heard.  Ohio Advisory Opinion 2017-7 explains that a court-annexed legal services program “is a permissible method” of ensuring the right of self-represented litigants to be heard and improving access to justice.  “A self-help clinic in a court,” it states, “can facilitate the administration of justice by reducing the necessity for a judge to provide additional accommodations for a self-represented litigant during a hearing, assisting in maintaining the appearance of impartiality, and increasing the opportunity for the matter to be heard on its merits rather than dismissed on technicalities.”

However, “[b]ecause the self-help clinic inevitably will be viewed by the public as a court-provided service,” the opinion states, “it must operate and appear, to the extent possible, as an independent function of the court.”   Thus, the Board advises that the court’s oversight and involvement “should be de minimis,” primarily funding and appointment of the lawyers, “not the day-to-day operation.”  Further, the opinion suggests, the physical location of the self-help clinic should reinforce the independence of the court and appointing judges.

The opinion also directs the court to take steps “to avoid communications between the appointed lawyers and court staff and judges about case-related matters that could be interpreted as an ex parte communication or imply that judges are not impartial.”  The opinion does permit occasional meetings between judicial officers, court staff, and appointed lawyers to discuss general administrative issues related to the clinic’s operation.  The opinion notes that the court should appoint the lawyers “impartially on a merit basis, and their compensation should not exceed the fair market value for similar services.”

Finally, the Board emphasizes that a “court that establishes a self-help clinic must be aware of the ethical obligations of the appointed lawyers in the clinic.  Most importantly, a limited client-lawyer relationship is formed when a lawyer participates and assists litigants in a self-help clinic, requiring the lawyer to adhere to his or her ethical obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • Subject to several conditions, a judge may meet with private vendors to procure or investigate services or products for use by the court or parties pursuant to court order but may not meet with vendors about developing or promoting their services. California Formal Opinion 2017-9.
  • When giving a speech at a court-sponsored Law Day event, a judge should focus on the law and not on comments by the President that she believes are critical of the role of an independent judiciary. New York Opinion 2017-54.
  •  To determine whether to unsubscribe from e-mails about political issues she receives on her personal e-mail account, a judicial official should consider whether the sending organization is concerned with the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice; whether the organization is a “political organization;” the extent to which the judicial official’s identity would be revealed to other recipients; and whether the e-mails concern a matter pending or impending in any court. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2017-8.
  • A judge may not meet with attorneys who represent criminal defendants for a “defense perspective” on the court’s handling of discovery, diversion, and disposition of cases. New York Opinion 17-101.
  • When a judge’s alleged misstatement of the law is the basis for an appeal but the judge does not recall her exact words, the judge may not advise the parties that she believes she correctly stated the legal standard and that the transcript is erroneous. New York Opinion 2017-61.
  • A judge may not appoint her sibling as a master commissioner. Kentucky Opinion JE-128 (2017).
  • A judge may not appoint her brother as a special prosecutor or guardian ad litem even when the appointment is governed by a rotating list. Nebraska Opinion 2017-2.  
  • A judicial nominee may provide a letter to clients stating that, as a result of her appointment to the bench, she will no longer be representing them, but that her law firm will continue the representation. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2017-2
  • A new judicial officer must advise his former law firm that his name needs to be removed from the firm name as soon as reasonably possible. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2017-5.  
  • A judge may not solicit funds for a non-profit drug treatment center or allow court employees to do so. Ohio Opinion 2017-6.  
  • A judicial association may accept $200 worth of appetizers from a restaurant for a cultural celebration open to the public. New York Opinion 2017-80.
  • A group of judges may not accept free tickets to sit in the governor’s box at Baltimore Orioles games. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-12.
  • A judge may be a housing resource for a relative on parole, but should not seek an exception to the parole board’s standard procedures based on his judicial status. New York Opinion 2017-77.  
  • A judge may appear in a family photograph on her first-degree relative’s campaign literature provided she does not wear a judicial robe and is not identified as a judge. New York Opinion 2017-79.  
  • A judicial official may not belong to the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2017-7. 

 

A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • A judge who presides in a high-volume court may discuss administrative issues with the attorneys who appear before her in annual or semi-annual meetings; the meetings should not include catered meals paid for by the attorneys, but the judge may host “brown bag luncheons” to which attorneys bring their own meals. New York Opinion 2017-24
  • A judge may attend a private organization’s diversity and racial equality seminar at his own expense. Florida Opinion 2017-10.
  • A judge may sponsor and participate in a public education program about the heroin epidemic, the Good Samaritan Law, and related Maryland law, with some conditions. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-13.
  • A judge may give a presentation on civil enforcement and related matters at a training conference for a sheriff’s association as long as he does not give advice on litigation strategy or comment on pending or impending cases. New York Opinion 2017-81.
  • A judge may speak to an audience of animal control officers about court procedures in dangerous-dog and unlicensed-dog cases, with some conditions. New York Opinion 2017-35.
  • A judge may organize a free community “Law Day” event at the library or historical society where volunteer attorneys would provide free 10-minute private consultations, with some conditions. New York Opinion 2017-30.
  • A judge should not give a baby gift to a lawyer who is appearing in a highly contested case pending before the judge or attend a baby shower given in the lawyer’s honor. Connecticut Informal Opinion 2017-1.
  • A judge may swear in the officers of a chamber of commerce at the organization’s annual installation dinner. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-5.
  • A judge may not allow his home to be part of a tour to raise funds for a charity. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-10.
  • A judge who is a board member of not-for-profit charitable and educational organizations that are not concerned with the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice may attend fund-raisers for the organizations even if a speaker points out the judge’s presence as long as the speaker also points out other prominent persons and identifies them by their honorifics.  Maryland Opinion Request 2017-14.
  • A judge may not participate in a university’s video profile series, published on the school’s web-site and social media channels, even if the videos are used for general campus promotion, but not for fund-raising, when each 2- to 3- minute video features a prominent alumnus discussing how undergraduate education helped him or her identify goals, aspire to a career, and achieve success; includes images of the university’s campus; and ends with the alumnus announcing the “tag line” that he or she “stands with” the school.  Massachusetts Opinion 2017-2.
  • A judge may not be a member of an ecclesiastical court or a hearing officer in a church-related disciplinary hearing. New York Opinion 2017-25
  • A judge may file a pro se answer in a real estate case in which she and her siblings are defendants but may not file an answer on her siblings’ behalf even though their interests are identical to hers. New York Opinion 2017-72.
  • A judge as administrator of a first-degree relative’s estate may act pro se at a closing for the estate’s real property. New York Opinion 2017-82.
  • A judge may serve on the board of directors of a non-profit organization that addresses issues of aging. South Carolina Opinion 6-2017.
  • A judge may not serve on the board of a charter school or of a non-profit organization that operates charter schools. California Formal Opinion 2017-11.
  • A judge may serve on a law section council of a general membership state bar association and participate in discussions and votes concerning proposed legislation. Illinois Opinion 2016-3.
  • A senior judge may be part of a team monitoring the Baltimore police department’s compliance with a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice, the mayor and city council, and the police department, with some conditions. Maryland Opinion Request 2017-8.
  • A judge must resign before becoming a candidate in a primary or general election for district attorney. North Carolina Opinion 2017-1.

A sampling of recent judicial ethics advisory opinions

  • A judge is disqualified from any cases in which his wife appears as a guardian ad litem. West Virginia Opinion 2017-1.
  • A family court judge may send a sympathy card to the family of a decedent who was formerly the subject of juvenile delinquency proceedings before the judge. New York Opinion 2017-15.  
  • A judge must self-report a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a question as to the judge’s own honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer. A judge should report misconduct by a lawyer or another judge within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the violation.  A judge who reports a lawyer’s misconduct is not presumptively disqualified from cases in which that lawyer appears.  A judge does not have a duty to report misconduct by those who are not judges or lawyers, but a judge should expose obvious and egregious illegal activity when the failure to do so could undermine confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.  Ohio Opinion 2017-2
  • A judge may accept an appointment to the Florida Impaired Driving Coalition, an advisory body to the state department of transportation, as long as it does not engage in matters that could reasonably be perceived as favoring the state in DUI prosecutions. Florida Opinion 2017-2.
  • A judge may not be a member of a “Justice Council” comprised of representatives of government agencies that is addressing the use of community-based programs and considering ways to reduce jail population. Nebraska Opinion 2017-1.  
  • A circuit’s chief judge may accept a copier donated by a group of professional guardians to be used in the probate and guardianship courtrooms only by probate and guardianship attorneys to make copies or certified copies of orders immediately following hearings. Florida Opinion 2017-6.
  • A judge may allow a personal injury firm, a legal aid group, a women lawyers association, and an African-American lawyers association to jointly host a free reception at the courthouse after a free diversity training seminar for judges and attorneys and may accept food/drink provided by the hosts at the event. Florida Opinion 2017-4.
  • To encourage others to pursue a legal career, a judge may speak to not-for-profit organizations affiliated with a certain religion, including domestic and foreign parochial schools and places of worship, about her background and experience in becoming a judge and accept standard speaking fees and reasonable travel expenses. New York Opinion 2017-12.
  • A judge may serve on the admissions committee of a country club if the club is non-profit, does not regularly engage in litigation, and does not invidiously discriminate. New York Opinion 2016-161.  
  • A judge is obligated to determine before joining a lay organization for men of a particular ethnicity and religion whether that organization engages in invidious discrimination. New York Opinion 2017-11.  
  • A judge may submit a letter to a municipality supporting the dedication of a little league baseball field in the name of her deceased former bailiff. Florida Advisory 2017-9.
  • A magistrate may participate in a dunk tank for a non-profit organization run by the judge’s spouse as long as he does not personally solicit funds and the prestige of judicial office is not used in advertising the fund-raiser. South Carolina Opinion 5-2017.
  • A judge may not give a videotaped interview that will be shown at a re-entry agency’s fund-raising event. New York Opinion 2016-152.
  • A judge may serve as a “judge” for preliminary Miss America pageant competitions. Florida Opinion 2017-8
  • A judge may run for a seat on a church parish council and serve on the finance committee. West Virginia Opinion 2017-7
  • A judge who presides over domestic violence cases may write a thesis for his master’s degree in social work on community response to domestic violence as long as he does not express any opinions on what he would do with any specific set of facts or on any pending or impending issues. West Virginia Opinion 2017-3.  
  • A judicial officer should not have an interest in an enterprise involved in the sale or manufacture of medical or recreational marijuana including a personal financial investment or private equity fund investment, shares in a corporation that invests in marijuana, an interest in property that is leased for marijuana growth or distribution, or an interest owned by a spouse or registered domestic partner. California Opinion 2017-10.  
  • A full-time magistrate who is a certified paramedic may work part-time for a service that transports non-emergency patients, for example, from hospital to hospital. South Carolina Opinion 4-2017.
  • A judge may serve as a referee at soccer games and accept reasonable compensation ($40-$80 per game). New York Opinion 2017-1.  
  • A judge may perform with a non-profit orchestra and other musical groups that are not business entities and accept reasonable compensation for her performances. A judge may publish her own musical compositions and receive royalties and performance rights fees for them.  New York Opinion 2017-11.  
  • A new judge may continue to serve as a receiver in a foreclosure provided his duties are ministerial and completed within 1 year, if possible. New York Opinion 2016-164.  
  • A new judge may complete her service as executor of a former client’s will by signing a deed necessary to transfer title to an heir. New York Opinion 2017-33.