October 23, 2014
Digest: A judge may allow his/her real property to be used for a festive seasonal ceremony, regardless of whether the ceremony is associated with a particular religion.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(B); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); Opinions 13-161; 12-142; 06-176; 06-65.
A part-time judge asks whether he/she may grant permission to a local resident and business owner who wishes to use the judge’s land for a Christmas tree lighting. The resident proposes to invite the local community to the event. The judge is concerned that allowing the tree to be placed on the judge’s private property might create an inappropriate impression that the judge favors one religion over another.
A judge must always avoid even an appearance of impropriety (see NYCRR 100.2), must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary's integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]), and must not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence his/her judicial conduct or judgment (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[B]). Thus, a judge must conduct all extra-judicial activities so they do not (1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge; (2) detract from the dignity of judicial office; or (3) interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties and are not incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-).
The Committee has advised that a judge may participate in seasonally appropriate activities such as the preparation of “an elaborate holiday display” which has “consistently attracted great attention and community participation” for over 20 years (Opinion 06-65), and publishing a holiday greeting in the local newspaper such as “Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to everyone in [location]” with the judge’s name and photo (Opinion 06-176).
Although the Committee did not specifically discuss, in Opinions 06-65 and 06-176, any possible impropriety based on a perceived connection between the proposed holiday display or greeting and a specific religion, the Committee has consistently advised that a judge may engage in extrajudicial activities connected with religious institutions, subject to certain limitations not applicable here (see, e.g., Opinions 13-161 [service as deacon of a church]; 12-142 [service as president of a religious organization]).
Accordingly, the inquiring judge may allow his/her land to be used for a festive seasonal ceremony, even though the ceremony is associated with a particular religion (see Opinions 06-176; 06-65).