December 3, 2009
Digest: Nothing in the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct requires a judge to comply with a charitable organization’s request that the judge refund a contribution the organization made several years ago to the judge’s re-election campaign. However, the judge may make a donation to the organization from his/her personal funds in the amount of the campaign contribution.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1); Opinions 09-48; 03-103; 95-131 (Vol. XIV).
Several years ago, a charitable organization contributed $50 to the inquiring judge’s election campaign fund. The organization recently contacted the judge to request a refund of its contribution because the New York State Attorney General’s office has determined that the organization was not authorized to make the contribution and directed organization staff to seek an immediate refund to avoid jeopardizing the organization’s tax exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The judge asks whether he/she may reimburse the organization with his/her personal funds as his/her campaign was concluded and all financial activity was closed out immediately.
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]). A judge is prohibited from engaging either directly or indirectly in any political activity except as expressly authorized by the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct or by law (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]). However, a judge may donate money to “any permissible charity or not-for-profit organization” (Opinion 09-48; see also Opinions 03-103, 95-131[Vol. XIV]). A charitable donation does not “cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge” (22 NYCRR 100.4[A]) and is, therefore, ethically permissible (see Opinions 03-103 and 95-131 [Vol. XIV]).
In the Committee’s view, the inquiring judge is not required by the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct to reimburse the organization for its improper donation under the circumstances presented. Nevertheless, the judge may pay the charitable organization $50 from his/her personal funds as a donation. In doing so, the judge would not be engaging in prohibited political activity (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]; Opinion 09-48).
This Committee can not otherwise comment on any legal questions, if any are associated with the organization’s request to the judge to return such funds.