March 16, 2017
Digest: A judge may join the Legal and Business Professionals of ____ County, a private social organization consisting of judges, lawyers, businesspeople, and law enforcement professionals interested in making their community a better place to work and live, even though its former name and mission statement inaccurately suggested a law enforcement orientation.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.4(C)(3); Opinions 15-15; 13-134; 09-156; 93-108.
A judge asks if he/she may join a private social organization for local judges, lawyers, businesspeople, and law enforcement professionals, which until recently had a name and mission statement that inaccurately suggested a law enforcement orientation.1 After realizing that even the appearance of an “explicit and exclusive law enforcement orientation” could potentially be problematic for judges (cf. Opinion 13-134), the organization changed its name and mission to accurately reflect its true nature, purpose, and membership, which is to unite local legal and business professionals to “make our community a better place to work and to live.”
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always 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 and 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 (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-). For example, a judge may be a member of a civic, fraternal or charitable organization not conducted for profit (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C]), except where prohibited by rule or opinion.
Thus, subject to generally applicable limitations on judicial speech and conduct, the Committee has said a full-time judge may participate in a non-governmental civic group of individuals interested in addressing the city's quality of life, economic and social problems (see Opinion 09-156); may be a member of a non-partisan citizens’ committee which seeks ways to reduce violence in the community (see Opinion 93-108); and may serve on the board of a community-based, not-for-profit local development corporation that seeks to build community by planning, promoting, coordinating and advancing responsible development to revitalize the neighborhood and strengthen the region (see Opinion 15-15).
By contrast, a judge may not be a member, or even an honorary member, of an association of law enforcement personnel, because membership “could cause the judge's impartiality to reasonably be questioned” (Opinion 13-134). Indeed, even where a fraternal order of police is “open to admitting judges and court employees as members,” a judge may not join because “it remains an organization with an ‘explicit and exclusive law enforcement orientation’” (id.).
Here, the entity until recently had a name and mission statement that strongly, but incorrectly, suggested an explicit and exclusive law enforcement orientation. However, the entity’s true nature, purpose, and membership (as described to the Committee and reflected in its new name and mission statement) do not have any special connection with law enforcement.
Accordingly, the Committee concludes a judge may join a private, not-for-profit social organization called the Legal and Business Professionals of ____ County, whose members, drawn from the bench and bar, local businesses, and law enforcement agencies, are interested in making their community a better place to work and live (see Opinions 15-15; 09-156; 93-108).
1 Indeed, the prior name and mission statement create an impression that the entity’s original organizers envisioned judges and police collaborating on law enforcement related goals. However, the Committee notes the entity is considerably older than Part 100, which was first promulgated in 1972.