June 13, 2013
Digest: A judge must not meet privately with a local political party regarding the inner workings of the court, including its procedures, personnel or decisions.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.0(Q); 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(B); 100.2(C); 100.3(B)(1); 100.3(B)(6); 100.3(B)(9)(a); 100.5(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(g); Opinions 11-85; 10-13; 01-73 (Vol. XX); 01-42 (Vol. XX); 88-136 (Vol. III); 88-32 (Vol. I).
The inquiring judge says he/she was recently elected to judicial office. A few months after assuming office, a political party leader that had endorsed the judge for election called to request a “private” meeting with the judge and certain party officials to discuss “some of the inner workings” of the judge’s judicial office. The party leader declined to provide any further details in advance of the requested private meeting. The judge concluded that such a meeting would be improper. Thereafter, the judge attended a non-political public meeting at which the party leader was present and publicly offered to “answer any questions about my court.” The party leader then publicly criticized the judge for not meeting privately with members of the political party. When the judge explained his/her ethical concerns about doing so, the party leader dismissed them and indicated that the party would withhold future political support if the judge did not agree to the proposed private meeting. In light of the party leader’s public statements, the judge requests a formal written opinion on whether he/she may meet with a local political party in private regarding “the inner workings of the ... court’s procedures, decisions and personnel.”
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). Thus, for example, a judge must not allow political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[B]), must not convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]), and must not be swayed by partisan interests (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]). Moreover, a judge must not engage in any direct or indirect political activity, including attending political gatherings, except as expressly permitted by the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]; 100.5[A][g]).
The Committee has previously advised that a judge should not meet with the Chief of Police and the Commissioner of Public Works for the municipality where the judge presides to discuss the judge's decisions to dismiss a number of parking tickets issued for illegal overnight parking (see Opinion 10-13), and that a judge may not participate in a private meeting with the representatives of a local victims’ advocacy group, where the representatives’ stated goal is to educate the judge about the importance of the group and the group’s role in the community, and to establish a “mutually respectful relationship” between the organization and the court system (see Opinion 11-85). Here, too, under the circumstances presented, the proposed meeting would, at the very least, create an appearance of impropriety. The public would almost certainly infer that the political party is attempting to exert influence over court policy and the judge’s judicial decisions. It is therefore impermissible (see Opinions 11-85; 10-13; 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]; 100.2[B]; 100.2[C]; 100.3[B]).1
The Committee notes that, even if the topic of the meeting were otherwise permissible, the inquiring judge must not attend political gatherings unless he/she is a declared candidate for election within his/her window period (see 22 NYCRR 100.0[Q]; 100.5[A][g]; Opinion 01-42 [Vol. XX]; compare Opinions 88-136 [Vol. III] [a Family Court judge may not speak at a political club about the function of the Family Court]; 88-32 [Vol. I] [a judge may not speak at a political club about the legal system] with Opinion 01-73 [Vol. XX] [a judge who is within his/her window period may speak on the topic of election reform at a program sponsored by a political club, subject to certain limitations]).
1 The public might also wonder if the private meeting has been requested so that the political party can attempt to engage in impermissible ex parte communications regarding a pending or impending matter (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]), or obtain from the judge a pledge or promise of conduct in office inconsistent with the impartial performance of the judge’s duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B][a]) .