September 4, 2014
Digest: A judicial association that is hosting an event to celebrate the life and work of a now deceased judge may permit a not-for-profit civil rights law firm which formerly employed the honoree to co-sponsor or underwrite the event, absent any factors creating an appearance of impropriety.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(I), (iv); Opinions 13-136; 13-45; 12-86; 08-106; 01-29 (Vol. XIX); 00-98 (Vol. XIX); 99-09 (Vol. XVII); Joint Opinion 14-40/14-43.
The inquiring judge is serving on a judicial association’s event planning committee for an upcoming event celebrating the life of a former judge, now deceased, who had started his/her legal career with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.1 The event is scheduled to take place at a federal courthouse and will be open to the association’s members and their guests. The judge states that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has contacted the planning committee with an offer to “co-sponsor the event, including helping to defray the costs of refreshments,” and asks whether it is ethically permissible to accept this offer. The judge states that, to his/her knowledge, the entity “has no cases pending before any members of the committee” that is putting together the event.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge may assist a not-for-profit organization in “planning fund-raising” (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][I]) but must not personally participate in soliciting funds, use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][I], [iv]), or otherwise lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
Although a judge may not in any way solicit such sponsorship or underwriting (see Opinions 08-106; 99-09 [Vol. XVII]; 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][I], [iv]), the Committee has advised that a “friends committee” consisting entirely of non-judges may solicit commercial sponsorship of educational programs offered at a judicial convention (see Opinion 00-98 [Vol. XIX]). Similarly, the Committee has advised that an administrative judge may seek co-sponsors such as bar associations and a law school for a conference on access to justice issues, where the co-sponsorship will involve collaboration in matters such as planning various events, partaking substantively in specific programs, or filling another programmatic need (see Opinion 01-29 [Vol. XIX] [distinguishing prior opinions]); a judge who is a member of a bar association’s judicial section may permit non-judge members of the bar association to ask law firms and other private entities to underwrite certain events which the bar association sponsors each year for the judicial section (see Joint Opinion 14-40 and 14-43); a judges’ association may, under certain circumstances, permit non-judicial co-sponsors of an educational conference to raise funds from foundations, bar associations, law schools, and members of the bar (see Opinion 12-86); a judge may attend and be honored at a reception organized by a bar association and underwritten by one or more commercial sponsors, including a law firm that will host the reception at its offices and provide all refreshments, where the event is publicized and open generally to members of the bench and bar, unless the host law firm is actively engaged in litigation in the judge’s court (see Opinion 13-45); and judges may attend an education program sponsored by the Office of Court Administration, which is hosted by a law school and financed by donations the law school host solicits from law school alumni, law firms, and businesses or business groups (see Opinion 13-136).
Here, it appears that the former employer of the honoree, on learning about the event, has on its own initiative volunteered to cosponsor or underwrite the program. Absent any special circumstances creating an appearance of impropriety, it is permissible for the judicial association to accept the offer (see Joint Opinion 14-40/14-43; Opinions 13-136; 13-45; 12-86; 01-29 [Vol. XIX]; 00-98 [Vol. XIX]). The Committee sees no such circumstances in these facts. It is therefore permissible.
1 According to its website, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization which seeks to “[d]iminish the role of race in the criminal justice system and the role of the criminal justice system in community life; [i]ncrease fairness and African-American participation in all aspects of economic life; [i]ncrease equity in education and eliminate tolerance for schools that fail students; and [a]chieve full African-American civic engagement and participation in the democratic process” through “litigation, advocacy, and public education.”