March 13, 2008
Digest: A judge may write a letter to the editor about a school construction project as long as the judge expresses his/her views solely as a private citizen whose personal interests will be affected, does not use official stationery or refer to his/her judicial office, and does not write in any way which could detract from the dignity of judicial office or interfere with the judge’s performance of judicial duties
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(2), (3); 100.4(B); Opinions 06-93; 02-41; 01-50; 97-36 (Vol. XV).
A part-time judge who previously served as a school superintendent would like to write a letter to the editor concerning a school construction project that will be voted on by members of the judge’s community. The judge asks if it is ethically permissible to write: (1) a letter supporting the project, or (2) a letter in which he/she takes no position, but instead emphasizes the importance of good schools for both the community and the education of the community’s children, and encouraging the voters to weigh a number of factors that he/she would identify in the letter when casting their votes. The judge advises that he/she will not identify him/herself in the letter as a judge.
A judge 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]). A judge may speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in extra-judicial activities subject to the requirements of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[B]).
In Opinion 01-50, the Committee advised that a part-time judge should not write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper in support of a school expansion project to be voted on by the residents of the school district, as to do so would create an appearance of impropriety. But, in Opinion 02-41 the Committee advised that a part-time judge may publically voice an opinion in letters to the editor concerning community matters that affect the judge’s personal interests. A part-time judge may not, however, express his/her opinion involving partisan political issues or controversial subjects that do not directly affect the judge’s interests, nor may the judge express his/her opinion in any manner that would detract from the dignity of judicial office or interfere with the performance of judicial duties (see id.).
Clearly, the local school construction budget affects the inquiring part-time judge as a taxpayer, homeowner, and perhaps as a parent or family member of a student. It is the Committee’s view, therefore, that the judge may write either proposed letter to the editor, subject to certain caveats. The judge must express his/her views solely as a private citizen whose personal interests will be affected, cannot use official stationery or refer to his/her judicial office, and cannot write in any way that could detract from the dignity of judicial office or interfere with his/her performance of judicial duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A], ; Opinion 06-93; 97-36 [Vol. XV]).
To the extent that it is inconsistent with this opinion, Opinion 01-50 is overruled.