October 23, 2009
Digest: A judge who routinely refers families to an agency’s supervised visitation and custody exchange program may, at a bar association’s request, write a letter in support of a local family services agency’s nomination for an annual award from a newspaper.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); Opinion 02-118.
A family court judge asks whether it is ethically permissible to write a letter in support of a family services agency that has been nominated by a local women’s bar association to receive an annual award from a newspaper. The purpose of the award is to recognize individuals and organizations that “go above and beyond the call of duty in the name of justice.” The inquiring judge and other family court judges routinely refer families to the agency’s supervised visitation and custody exchange program.
A judge must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all the judge’s activities (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). Therefore, a judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
The Committee previously has advised that a judge may write a letter at a bar association’s request to assist the association in nominating an attorney for an award to be given by the state bar association where the judge had worked with the attorney on an attorney grievance committee and the attorney had appeared before the judge many times (see Opinion 02-118).
Similarly, in the present inquiry, the judge routinely refers families to the agency nominated to receive an award and so is familiar with the agency’s work. In addition, the judge has been asked by a bar association to write a letter supporting the award nominee. Finally, the award will be made by a newspaper and seeks only to recognize organizations for their work in seeking justice. Under these circumstances, it is the Committee’s view that a judge who writes a letter at a bar association’s request to support a family services agency’s nomination to receive a newspaper’s annual award cannot reasonably be viewed as using the prestige of his/her office to advance the private interests of the agency (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). Therefore, the inquiring judge may write the proposed letter based on his/her factual knowledge that the nominee "meets the criteria of award" (assuming that is the case), but should not actually recommend that the particular agency get the award.