Opinion 15-77

April 23, 2015


Digest:         A judge may contribute to Planned Parenthood, except if the funds are for a political action committee or other political arm of the organization.


Rules:          22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(3); 100.5; Opinions 14-117; 03-45; 98-101; 89-55.


         A judge asks if he/she may contribute to Planned Parenthood, or whether such contributions would be deemed improper political activity. He/she explains: “the mission of Planned Parenthood is to provide comprehensive reproductive and complementary health care services in settings which preserve and protect the essential privacy and rights of each individual to advocate public policies which guarantee these rights and ensure access to such services to provide educational programs which enhance understanding of individual and societal implications of human sexuality to promote research and the advancement of technology in reproductive health care and encourage understanding of their inherent bio-ethical, behavioral, and social implications.”

         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 generally engage in extra-judicial activities that are not incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][3]), but the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct place extensive restrictions on judges’ political activity (see generally 22 NYCRR 100.5).

         In Opinion 14-117, the Committee advised that a judge may contribute funds to not-for-profit organizations whose “activities and missions appear to be essentially charitable in nature within the meaning of the Rules and the Committee’s prior opinions” (Opinion 14-117 [footnote omitted]). By contrast, the Committee advised that a judge “may not make donations to a ‘political organization’ within the meaning of the Rules,” such as a political action committee or an organization whose mission is to elect a certain category of individuals to public office (id.).

         More than 15 years ago, the Committee advised that a judge may join Planned Parenthood, provided such membership does not involve the judge in organizational litigation or in public association with organizational positions on matters of public controversy (see Opinion 98-101). The Committee specifically recognized that Planned Parenthood is “engaged in a variety of activities that a judge could readily be associated with (e.g. education about the Bill of Rights, women's health counseling, etc.)” but is “also involved in matters of great public controversy, including an involvement in litigation” (id.). Based on this inquiry and the entity’s website, these observations continue to ring true today.

         Thus, whereas “[t]he mission of Emily’s List is to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, and MoveOn.Org is a political action committee” (Opinion 14-117), it appears Planned Parenthood has carefully segregated its non-political and charitable activities from its political ones, so its non-political arm maintains tax-exempt status1 (cf. Opinion 03-45 [describing a not-for-profit advocacy organization that promotes equal rights for gay and lesbians “as comprising various arms that {appear} separately incorporated. One arm performs educational activities. Another arm, which is non-partisan, endorses political candidates of all parties who support the organization’s goals”]).

         The Committee thus concludes the inquiring judge may contribute funds to Planned Parenthood’s non-political charitable and/or educational entities (see Opinions 14-117; 03-45). The judge must, however, be careful not to contribution to Planned Parenthood’s political action committee or any political arm of the organization (see Opinions 14-117; 89-55).


       1 Status as a tax-exempt organization under Internal Revenue Code § 501(C)(3), although not determinative, “tends to suggest that an organization is not engaged in partisan political activity” (Opinion 14-117, n 2).