December 11, 2014
Digest: A judge may permit a newly elected state official to use a ceremonial courtroom for his/her swearing-in ceremony.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); Joint Opinion 09-240/09-241/10-06; Opinion 03-20.
A judge asks if it is ethical to allow a state legislator to use a ceremonial courtroom for his/her swearing-in ceremony. The judge notes county officials and judges previously used the courtroom for this purpose, but is uncertain whether an in-coming state official may do so when the race for the state office was “a particularly contentious race with a lot of negative publicity.”
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]).
The Committee has advised that a “ceremony at which a statutorily required oath of office is administered is a civic event calling for collegiality among public office holders, and tends to promote civil relations and discourse between the various branches of government” (Joint Opinion 09-240/09-241/10-06). Accordingly, administering a public official's oath of office and/or attending the official’s swearing-in ceremony “neither creates an appearance of impropriety ... nor constitutes prohibited participation in a political activity or a political gathering” (id.). Similarly, the Committee has advised that a “courthouse may be used for a ceremony and reception hosted by local bar associations for the purpose of honoring the new chairperson of a legislative judiciary committee” (Opinion 03-20), and such use of the courthouse “in no way implies an endorsement of the legislator” (id.). As a practical matter, these principles must apply across the board to all duly elected officials, regardless of how contentious or divisive a particular election campaign may have been. Indeed, when a recent campaign has been contentious or divisive, it is even more important to act to promote civility and collegiality between public officials and the branches of government.
Therefore, in the present inquiry, the Committee sees no ethical bar to allowing a courtroom to be used for the ceremonial purpose of swearing in a duly elected state legislator (see Joint Opinion 09-240/09-241/10-06; Opinion 03-20).