December 8, 2005
Digest: A part-time village justice should not provide a letter of reference to a friend, who is also a client, which is intended to be used in the promotion of the friend’s real estate business.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2(C)(1); Opinions 89-15 (Vol. III); 97-16 (Vol. XV).
A part-time village justice who practices law has been asked by a friend who is also a client to write a letter of recommendation to be placed in a folder for use in developing his business in real estate sales. The friend also lives in the same village. Although the judge’s law practice is not in the village, one-third of it is in real estate and is concentrated primarily in the judge’s home community. The letter, which is not addressed to anyone specifically, describes the good business practices and personal attributes of the friend. The judge inquires whether it is proper to furnish such a letter.
Section 100.2(C)(1) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct states that “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.” 22 NYCRR 100.2(C)(1). In prior opinions, this Committee has advised against allowing judges to provide letters of reference in situations that promote the personal business interests of others. These circumstances include a judge furnishing a letter of reference to assist a friend to secure a bank loan (Opinion 89-15 [Vol. XII]), or a letter of support for a private business in its bid to continue to provide services to a municipality. Opinion 97-16 (Vol. XV).
Here, the danger is compounded, as the friend will presumably seek to bring such a letter not merely to the attention of a single entity (e.g. a bank to which a loan application had been made, or a municipality of whose approval is sought for a contract to provide services), but to members of the public at large. Indeed, the inquirer has no way of controlling the letter’s distribution, capable of being readily included within an advertisement and thus directly connected to the promotion the friend’s business. Under these circumstances, the judge should not provide the requested letter.