April 27, 2006
Digest: (1) A judge may attend the wedding of an attorney who regularly appears before him/her, and give the bride and groom a gift, but should not attend when the attorney is on trial before the judge; (2) After the wedding, the judge should disclose such attendance when the attorney appears in the judge’s court, the duration of the disclosure depending on the nature of the judge’s relationship with the attorney.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2(A), 100.3(E)(1), (F); Joint Opinion 05-89/05-90; Opinions 92-22 (Vol. IX); 91-136 (Vol. VIII); 89-23 (Vol. III); Matter of Huttner, Comm. on Jud. Conduct (July 5, 2005).
A judge inquires whether he/she may attend the wedding of an attorney who regularly appears in the judge’s court, and, if so, whether the judge may give the bride and groom a gift.
This Committee has previously concluded, in a variety of circumstances, that it is generally ethically permissible for judges to attend social events with attorneys. For example, we said that a judge may attend the opening of a new law office of an attorney who regularly appears before the judge (Opinion 91-136, Vol. VIII), and that a he/she may attend the 75th birthday party of a practicing attorney who appears before the judge (Opinion 89-23, Vol. III). Consequently, we see no ethical impediment to the inquiring judge attending a wedding, or giving the couple a gift.
A judge’s attendance at such events with lawyers is, of course, subject to the other requirements of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. Thus, the judge should not attend the wedding if the attorney in question is presently on trial before him/her, and in all events, should not discuss any pending matters. 22 NYCRR 100.2(A); Joint Opinion 05-89/05-90; Opinion 92-22 (Vol. IX).
But, the fact that the judge may attend the wedding leaves unanswered the question whether the judge has any obligations during that attorney’s subsequent court appearances before the judge, namely, whether the judge is now required to disclose and/or recuse due to such attendance? 22 NYCRR 100.3(E)(1). The answer depends on whether the invitation was born of a “close social relationship” between the judge and the attorney. If so, the judge would be disqualified, and, at the very least, should disclose “so that the parties and their attorneys could have . . . an opportunity to consider whether to seek . . . disqualification. (See, Section 100.3[F] of the Rules).” Matter of Huttner, Comm. On Jud. Conduct (July 5, 2005); Joint Opinion 05-89/05-90.
The judge’s inquiry contains no facts beyond the invitation. Indeed, there may well be no “close social relationship” of a kind present in Huttner. Nonetheless, even if that is so, given the particularly significant and personal nature of the event, we deem it advisable, that for some reasonable period of time, the judge should disclose his/her attendance at the wedding. If, on the other hand, there is a “close social relationship,” disqualification becomes a prime consideration. Under such circumstances, the judge can recuse or at the very least, fully disclose in all instances where the attorney appears, as stated in Huttner, and in Joint Opinion 05-89/05-90.