This is in response to your inquiry (06-156) concerning the propriety of writing general character reference letters on behalf of family members, friends and neighbors.
A judge must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities. 22 NYCRR 100.2. In particular, “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).
In Opinion 93-26 (Vol. XI), this Committee advised that the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct do not prohibit a judge from writing a letter of reference that reflects the judge's opinion of a person's character or work history if the judge has worked with the person and has a reliable personal knowledge of the person’s expertise. In such circumstances, and in the absence of any potential conflict or appearance of impropriety, the judge may write a letter of reference on judicial letterhead bearing the notation “personal and unofficial.”
In Opinion 93-12 (Vol. X), this Committee further advised that the Rules do not prohibit a judge from providing a reference to a hiring entity as to a job applicant’s good character, provided the reference reflects the judge’s opinion of the applicant’s character.
A judge may not, however, on his/her own initiative or at the request of a lawyer facing sentencing on felony charges or continued disbarment, or at the request of the lawyer’s counsel, provide character references to officials involved in the proceedings against the lawyer. Opinion 89-73 (Vol. III). To do so would violate section 100.2(C) of the Rules, which prohibits a judge from testifying voluntarily as a character witness. But, such a character reference is permissible in response to an official inquiry. Id.
This Committee has issued a number of other opinions addressing specific circumstances in which judges were asked to provide references. In each case, the Committee’s opinion depended on such factors as the judge’s relationship to the individual seeking the reference, the judge’s relationship to the person or entity that will receive the reference, and the nature or purpose of the specific reference. See, e.g., Opinions 02-26; 01-37 (Vol. XX); 98-103 (Vol. XVII); 94-36 (Vol. XII).
Since your inquiry does not set forth the particular circumstances which you might presently face, concerning a reference for a particular purpose, we are unable to respond with any specificity beyond what is stated above. Should you be so inclined, please feel free to submit a new inquiry that provides the necessary particulars.