Special presentations

In a recent advisory opinion, the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions identified the conditions under which a judge may make educational presentations to specialty bar associations.  California Formal Advisory Opinion 2018-12.  The committee defined a specialty bar association as one “whose members primarily represent a particular class of litigants on one side in cases before the courts . . . .”

The opinion advised that a judge may make educational presentations to specialty bar associations but conditioned that permission on the judge:

  • Being equally available to give presentations to audiences with opposing interests or viewpoints, and
  • Evaluating whether the frequency of presentations before a particular association or type of association would create an appearance of bias.

Further, the judge’s presentation:

  • Must be neutral in content,
  • Must be presented from a judicial perspective,
  • Must avoid coaching or providing a tactical advantage to the audience, and
  • Must not include statements that may cast doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially.

The committee explained that a “presentation is sufficiently neutral if the judge can give the same presentation to specialty bar associations with members that represent opposing or competing interests or parties.”

The committee stated the promotional materials for the program may identify a judge by judicial title, but the judge should ask to review the materials in advance to ensure that they accurately reflect the neutral and educational nature of the presentation.  If the judge is aware that the materials are inconsistent with the canons, the opinion stated, the judge must take corrective action, which may include giving an oral disclaimer at the time of the presentation.

See also Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 2002-1 (a judge may participate as a speaker or panelist in educational programs sponsored by the Academy of Matrimonial Lawyer, which does not favor any particular category of litigants); Nebraska Advisory Opinion 2006-4 (a judge should not make a presentation on effective motions to suppress in a seminar about successful defense of driving under the influence cases sponsored by the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association); New Mexico Advisory Opinion 2008-6 (a judge may not speak about the domestic violence court over which she presides at a seminar of the state criminal defense lawyers association that prosecutors were not permitted to attend); New York Joint Advisory Opinions 2003-84 and 2003-89 (a judge may participate in education programs sponsored by the National Consumer Law Center or by a legal services group that appears in housing court provided she does not give advice on strategy or tactics to succeed in such cases on behalf of particular clients); New York Advisory Opinion 2003-54 (a judge may be a panelist and lecturer on the law of evidence at the annual meeting of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers provided he does not comment on pending or impending cases and does not indicate a pre-disposition to rule in a particular way concerning legal issues that may come before the him).

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.