October 28, 2010
Digest: A judge may nominate a probation department employee for an award that acknowledges those employees who significantly assist the court in the administration of justice.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); Opinions 08-175; 02-118; 93-26 (Vol. XI).
A judge asks whether he/she may respond to a probation department request to nominate one of its employees for an award that “recognize[s] an employee who best exemplifies strength of character, service and competence as a public servant engaging in the court system” and “significantly assist[s] the Court in [the] administration of justice.” According to the judge, candidates for the award are department employees who regularly appear before the judge and must be nominated by a judge to be considered.
A judge must avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary's integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). Therefore, a judge must not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of another (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
The Committee previously has advised that 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 supporting the nomination of a local family services agency for an annual award from a newspaper (see Opinion 08-175). The Committee also has advised that a judge may, at a bar association’s request, write a letter supporting the bar association’s nomination of an attorney for a state bar association award 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).
Because it appears that the inquiring judge has worked with probation department employees who appear in the judge’s court, the judge has the personal knowledge to evaluation probation department employees with reference to the following award criteria:
Displays dedication to the ideals of justice during interactions with the judge.
Exhibits strong ideals and values of professionalism in dealing with the court.
Shows consistent dedication to equality for all involved in the judicial process.
Has exceptional knowledge of probation supervision and ... a keen understanding of the technical aspects of probation.
Given the circumstances the judge describes and the criteria for the award, it is the Committee’s view that the inquiring judge may nominate a probation department employee for the award without violating the prohibition against using the prestige of judicial office to further the private interests of another (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). Doing so is analogous to a judge writing a letter of reference based on “reliable personal knowledge” that reflects the judge's opinion of a person's character or work history, which the Committee has previously advised is permissible, even if the person is an attorney who appears before the judge (see Opinion 93-26 [Vol. XI]). Moreover, in the Committee’s view, a judge’s nomination of a department employee for this award under the circumstances presented is likely to help improve the administration of justice and is unlikely to create any appearance of impropriety (cf. Opinion 93-26 [Vol. XI]).