January 28, 2016
Digest: A judge who serves on a law school reunion committee (1) may not sign a letter that encourages and solicits alumni donations, but (2) may invite fellow alumni to attend a law school reunion event which is not a fund-raiser, provided he/she does not refer to donations or fund-raising activities.
Rule: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i), (iv); Opinions 07-157; 02-79; 02-46; 99-141; 95-07.
A judge who is a member of a law school reunion committee asks whether he/she may be a signatory or listed as a committee member on a letter inviting alumni to attend an upcoming law school reunion. Although admission to the reunion is free, so the event itself is not a fund-raiser, the invitation urges recipients to donate to the law school, sets forth specific fund-raising goals, and reports on progress toward those goals. Alternatively, the judge asks whether he/she may contact other alumni by letter, email, and/or telephone simply “asking them to attend” the free law school reunion event.
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 “shall not personally participate in the solicitation of funds or other fund-raising activities,” although he/she “may assist” in “planning fund-raising” for a not-for-profit educational organization (22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i]). In addition, a judge
shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising or membership solicitation, but may be listed as an officer, director or trustee of such an organization. Use of an organization’s regular letterhead for fund-raising or membership solicitation does not violate this provision, provided the letterhead lists only the judge’s name and office or other position in the organization, and, if comparable designations are listed for other persons, the judge’s judicial designation (22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][iv]).
When the judge’s role involves no fund-raising or interference with judicial duties, the Committee has advised a judge may serve on a law school reunion committee (see Opinions 07-157; 02-79) and participate in organizing and administering a law school alumni event (see Opinion 02-46).
However, in the Committee’s view, this judge may not sign the law school’s proposed letter, as it actively encourages donations to the law school (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i]). Although the Committee has advised that “the presence of [a] single line about annual giving [in the homecoming literature] is not to be deemed a violation of any ethical rules” for a judge who is on a law school’s board of directors (Opinion 95-07), the letter here contains an entire paragraph encouraging donations in honor of the reunion to meet specified fund-raising goals. Nonetheless, the judge may be listed as a committee member on the letter if such listing is part of the organization’s “regular letterhead” (22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][iv]).
As for merely inviting other alumni to attend the reunion, whether by letter, e-mail, telephone, or otherwise, the Committee has advised that a judge “may be a member of a law school reunion committee by calling classmates and encouraging them to attend reunion events, so long as the judge’s participation does not interfere with the judge’s official duties; and, further, that the judge, in contacting classmates to attend, does not include any reference to any specific fund raising dinners or events that may be taking place during the reunion” (Opinion 07-157). Indeed, a judge may even use judicial stationery to inform fellow law school alumni of an upcoming annual law school homecoming event which is not a fund-raiser, provided the letter is clearly marked “Personal and Unofficial” (Opinion 99-141). Here, too, the judge may invite fellow alumni to attend a law school reunion, non-fundraising event if he/she does not refer to donations or fund-raising activities.