September 7, 2017
Digest: A judge may not participate in a “Call to Service and Compassion Workshop” to honor child abuse victims and survivors hosted by a local child advocacy center.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); Opinions 15-26/15-44; 10-59; 04-91.
A judge asks if he/she may attend a “Call to Service and Compassion Workshop” honoring child abuse victims and survivors and their families, hosted by a child advocacy center, and lead a prayer at the event. The event will be free and open to the public.
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]). He/she may engage in extra-judicial activities if those activities are not incompatible with judicial office nor cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s impartiality, detract from the dignity of judicial office, or interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-).
As we have noted, “judges must carefully protect rights of an accused and hold offenders accountable only after a legally sound plea or conviction,” even when it may be natural to “feel strong sympathy” for victims of domestic violence or abuse (Opinion 15-26/15-44). It is critical to maintain both the appearance and the reality of impartiality in such matters (see 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2[A]; 100.4[A]).
In Opinion 15-26/15-44, we reconsidered and modified certain prior opinions “to the extent they preclude a judge from merely attending any event whatever run by a domestic violence advocacy organization which solely serves domestic violence victims.” In particular, “[w]here the event’s overall context is not so one-sided and intensely emotional as to raise reasonable questions about the judge’s ability to be impartial,” we concluded “no appearance of impropriety is created by the judge’s mere attendance at such an event” (id.). Thus, a judge may attend a domestic violence advocacy organization’s annual fund-raiser, as it is “not the kind of highly emotional, extraordinarily one-sided events as the candlelight vigil and the tree planting” described in prior opinions (id.). A judge may also participate in a workshop or other program “intended to improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice with respect to domestic violence issues,” where the membership is balanced and the judge will not be “perceived as improperly aligned with one ‘side’ of domestic violence cases” (id.).
Here, however, the event is not an annual fund-raiser nor a balanced event devoted to improvement of the law, legal system and the administration of justice. It is a “Call to Service and Compassion Workshop” honoring child abuse victims, survivors and their families, where the judge and others would lead prayers for victims. We believe it no less emotional an occasion than a candlelight vigil and tree planting for domestic violence victims, and it is likely to attract substantial public attention and interest. Thus, we believe the judge’s presence and participation “create an appearance of particular sympathy toward one side in court” and necessarily cast doubt on the judge’s ability to be impartial (Opinion 04-91; see also Opinion 10-59; 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]).
Therefore, the judge may not participate.