September 7, 2017
Digest: A judge who presides in veterans treatment court may write to legislators asking for names of potential peer mentors to work with veteran-defendants in the program, provided the judge avoids both actual coercion and its appearance when requesting participation. Alternatively, the judge may authorize his/her resource coordinator or mentor coordinator to write such a letter.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.3(B)(8); 100.4(C)(1); Opinions 17-114; 16-91; 09-68; 07-124; 90-73.
A full-time judge who presides in veterans treatment court1 wishes to recruit mentors to work with veteran-defendants. According to the Office of Policy and Planning, veteran mentors “are a critical component” of the court, and “provide veteran-defendants with a unique source of support and motivation” as they seek to “reintegrate into civilian life.” The judge asks specifically if he/she may personally contact local, state and federal legislators by letter to request the names of individuals known to them who may meet the qualifications to be a mentor. The letter would be on official judicial letterhead and “would contain a summary of how the court works, the requirements to be a mentor, and the role the mentor serves.” Alternatively, the judge asks if the court’s resource coordinator or mentor coordinator may write such a letter.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). Thus, for example, a full-time judge may not appear before an executive or legislative body or official, except on matters concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C]). A judge may also explain the procedures of the court for public information (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).
A judge may individually solicit attorneys for voluntary pro bono representation of the indigent, in appropriate circumstances, provided the judge avoids both actual coercion and its appearance when making such solicitations (see Opinions 09-68; 90-73 [noting that attorneys’ responses should be directed to a non-judge involved in administering the program]; but see Opinion 17-114 [judge may not contact a legal services provider or law firm to request free legal representation for a non-party witness who is not entitled to free legal services]). Somewhat analogously, a judge may also ask local not-for-profit organizations if they are willing to accept court placement of defendants to serve community service sentences, and thereafter provide their contact information to the alternatives to incarceration program’s administrator (see Opinion 16-91).
We conclude a judge may similarly solicit volunteer mentors to assist participants in veterans treatment court, provided the judge avoids both actual coercion and its appearance when making such solicitations.
Accordingly, this judge may also write to members of a legislative body seeking names of individuals who might be suitable to work as mentors to veterans treatment court participants, as this directly concerns the law, the legal system and the administration of justice (see e.g. Opinion 07-124 [judges may publicly address a local legislature about the assignment of indigent defense services but must refrain from commenting about pending or impending cases]). In the letter, the judge may also explain what the treatment court does, the role of mentors, and the qualifications to be a mentor (see e.g. 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).
If desired, the judge may also authorize his/her resource coordinator or mentor coordinator to write and send such a letter.
1This specialized problem-solving court, “located within an existing Drug Treatment or Mental Health Court, … provides veteran-defendants suffering from addiction, mental illness and/or co-occurring disorders with links to community-based services as well as to … agencies specializing in veterans' affairs.” (Office of Policy and Planning, Problem Solving Courts: Veterans Courts: Overview http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/problem_solving/vet/index.shtml [accessed Jan 5, 2018]).