Opinion 11-118

October 27, 2011


Digest:         A judge may host a community screening of a documentary about the effects of a long-term prison sentence on the relationship between incarcerated mothers and their children and may moderate a discussion of the film, provided the judge does not discuss pending or impending cases and avoids any appearance of partiality or predisposition to decide matters a certain way. He/she may not permit fund-raising at the event but a community group may sell refreshments, as long as the sale of refreshments is un-advertised and de minimis. This program should not be at the courthouse without administrative approval.


Rules:          22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.3(B)(8); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i), (iv); Opinions 11-56; 07-15; 00-79 (Vol. XIX); 95-94 (Vol. XIII); 95-32 (Vol. XIII); 89-146 (Vol. IV).


         A family court judge asks whether he/she may “host a community screening of a ... documentary film about incarcerated women and the effects of a long-term prison sentence on the mother/child relationship.” As host, the judge would plan, organize and facilitate the screening. The judge would invite individuals and community groups to attend and would act as moderator for discussion about the film. The judge would ask some persons to speak about “the importance and need for foster parents, visiting hosts and adoptive parents,” to encourage others to volunteer for such roles. A representative of the child care center at a local correctional facility would discuss the center’s role and its “current challenges.” Further, the judge would permit a county youth bureau or other governmental or not-for-profit community groups to sell refreshments and keep the proceeds.

         The judge also advises that no fund-raising would occur at the event and that the judge would have no role in selling refreshments.

         A judge must always 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]). A judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]) and may neither personally participate in soliciting funds or other fund-raising activities (see 22 NYCRR100.4[C][3][b][i]) nor permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising or membership solicitation (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3][b][iv]). Also, a judge may not publicly comment about a pending or impending case in any court within the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B][8]). Subject to these and other limits a judge may nonetheless engage in extra-judicial activities not incompatible with judicial office and do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to be impartial, detract from the dignity of judicial office, or interfere with the judge’s judicial duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][1]-[3]).

         The Committee has previously advised that a judge may, subject to certain limitations, appear as moderator on a televised public service program focusing on various aspects of the law including legal procedures, specific laws and legal rights (see Opinion 00-79 [Vol. XIX]); moderate a panel discussion at the judge’s religious institution involving the basics of court operations (see Opinion 11-56); host a regularly televised show about the law and court procedures (see Opinion 89-146 [Vol. IV]); host a televised talk show on a noncommercial public access station discussing “varied” topics (see Opinion 95-94 [Vol. XIII]); and host “brown bag” lunches to discuss law and practice issues with lawyers (see Opinion 07-15).

         Here, the judge similarly identifies his/her role as just a host and moderator planning and organizing a screening for members of the judge’s community and moderating the discussion. In the Committee’s view, the judge may do so, only if the judge does not discuss pending or impending cases and avoids any appearance of partiality or predisposition to decide matters in a pre-determined way (see Opinion 11-56; 22 NYCRR 100.3[B][8]; 100.2[A]).


         In light of the judge’s representation that the event involves no fund-raising, the judge may permit a governmental or not-for-profit community group to sell refreshments incident to the movie, as long as the refreshments’ availability is unadvertised and de minimis (cf. Opinion 95-32 [Vol. XIII] [a magistrates’ association may host a panel discussion concerning the law and charge a small participation fee to cover the costs of the luncheon and materials]).

         Finally, although the judge does not specify the event’s venue, the Committee notes that the described program should not be held at the courthouse without administrative approval.