Joint Opinion 14-40 and 14-43
April 24, 2014
Digest: 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.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i),(iv); 100.4(D)(5); 100.4(D)(5)(a); Opinions 13-45; 12-86; 09-66; 08-106; 06-67; 00-98 (Vol. XIX); 87-15(c) (Vol. I).
The inquiring judge has submitted two inquiries on behalf of a bar association’s judicial section. In effect, the judge asks whether judges may permit “law firms or corporate entities or private entities” to underwrite certain events for the bar association’s judicial section. One event (Inquiry 14-40) is a “cocktail reception” that will serve as a “membership recruitment event” to encourage judges to join the judicial section. The other events (Inquiry 14-43) are the section’s quarterly luncheon meetings, traditionally held at a specific restaurant, at which section members discuss matters affecting the judiciary. The judge has explained that the bar association is having difficulty funding the quarterly luncheons, and has asked if other bar association members, who are not judges, may seek outside funding for the luncheons.1
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 assist a not-for-profit organization in “planning fund-raising” (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i]) but must not personally participate in the solicitation of funds, must not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i], [iv]), nor 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 is limited in his/her ability to accept a gift, bequest, favor, or loan (see generally 22 NYCRR 100.4[D]), a judge may accept a complimentary invitation to attend a bar-related function (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[D][a]).
The Committee has advised that a judge may attend a bar association function as the guest of an attorney or law firm (see Opinion 87-15[c] [Vol. I]; see also 22 NYCRR 100.4[D][a]), and may attend bar association programs that are sponsored or underwritten by commercial entities (see Opinions 12-86; 08-106). When such events are held “at a neutral location such as a bar association, hotel or conference center,” the Committee has advised that “a judge may attend even if a law firm that is sponsoring or underwriting the event is actively involved in litigation in the judge’s court” (Opinion 13-45). Indeed, the Committee has advised that a judge may “attend a judicial reception of a local bar association as a complimentary guest even though others attending must pay and the event is underwritten by one or more entities” (Opinion 09-66).
Further, the Committee has advised that, subject to certain limitations, “a ‘friends committee’ consisting entirely of non-judges may solicit commercial sponsorship of educational programs offered at a judicial convention” (Opinion 12-86, quoting Opinion 00-98 [Vol. XIX]). Under the facts presented, it appears that the judicial section’s cocktail reception and quarterly luncheons are bar association events, which have traditionally been funded by the bar association.2 Moreover, the suggestion of raising funds to underwrite these events has come from the bar association itself, rather than the inquiring judge.
Accordingly, the Committee concludes that 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.
1 There is no indication in the present inquiry that the judicial section events will be attended by the anticipated sponsors, or indeed, by anyone other than judges.
2 The Committee has advised that “there is a substantive difference between soliciting funds to enhance judicial education and soliciting gifts of wine or money to enhance a judges’ dinner or buy door prizes for judges” or otherwise asking lawyers to “solicit gifts for the private enjoyment of the association’s members” (Opinion 06-67). Under the facts presented, the judicial section’s cocktail reception and quarterly luncheons appear to be long-standing bar association events with substantial purposes beyond mere “private enjoyment” by the judges.