March 13, 2014
Digest: A judge may purchase tickets and attend a fund-raising dinner for a not-for-profit organization that provides assistance and advocates for victims of domestic violence, subject to generally applicable limitations on judicial speech and conduct.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B)(6); 100.3(B)(8); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(ii); Opinions 14-29; 13-185; 10-59; 04-91.
The inquiring judge asks whether he/she may attend a fund-raiser for a “not-for-profit organization that provides assistance and advocates for victims of domestic violence.” The fund-raiser is open to the general public and will be held at a local restaurant. The judge has explained that there is no admission fee for the event. Instead, all attendees order and pay for a meal “in the normal manner,” but all tips provided to the volunteer servers will be donated to the organization.1 The judge proposes to do the same, using his/her personal funds to pay for his/her meal and donation. The judge states that volunteers from the organization “sometimes attend my court and accompany complaining witnesses in domestic violence cases” before the judge. However, although the volunteers “may provide support for the complainant and may speak to the District Attorney regarding the case,” they have “no direct interaction with the court.”
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 must avoid impermissible ex parte communications (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]) and must not make any public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court within the United States or its territories (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]). A judge may engage in extra-judicial activities that do not (1) cast 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, and are not incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-). A judge must not be a speaker or guest of honor at a not-for-profit organization’s fund-raising events but may attend such events (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][ii]).
The Committee has previously advised that a judge may purchase tickets and attend a fund-raising dinner for a not-for-profit organization which supports victims of child abuse and helps prepare them for court appearances, subject to generally applicable limitations on judicial speech and conduct (see Opinion 13-185).
Here, too, under the facts presented, it appears that the event itself is not “so extraordinarily one-sided in nature that [the judge’s] attendance would necessarily cast doubt on [the judge’s] ability to be impartial” (compare Opinion 13-185 with Opinions 10-59; 04-91). Accordingly, the inquiring judge may attend the event and make contributions to the organization. However, to avoid any possible appearance of impropriety, such as the appearance that the judge is permitting others to subject him/her to improper ex parte communications, the judge should absent him/herself if there is any discussion of a case that is currently pending before the judge (see Opinion 14-29; 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.3[B]).
1 The judge states that the volunteer waitstaff are “often local celebrities or politicians.”