October 22, 2015
Digest: A judge may not be the guest speaker at a not-for-profit organization’s annual dinner, where the judge knows that the dinner, although itself modestly priced, involves substantial, ongoing and prominent fund-raising as the attendees are strongly urged to upgrade to silver, gold, life, or corporate memberships, and are publicly recognized for making full or partial payment during the dinner.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(ii); Opinion 14-193.
This judge asks if he/she may agree to be guest speaker at an “Annual Freedom Fund Dinner,” for the local branch of a national non-profit entity. The relatively modest ticket price includes dinner, a one-year membership, and a one-year magazine subscription. Indeed, the ticket sales merely “cover the cost of the meal and related expenses at the dinner.” However, the local branch must obtain “a certain number of paid memberships” and “pay an annual fee” to maintain its affiliation with the national entity. Accordingly, at this dinner, the organization prominently conducts a membership drive for silver, gold, life and corporate membership levels, “for considerably larger amounts” than a regular membership. Throughout the dinner, “[p]ledges for the various membership categories are taken”; “down payments are accepted”; and “[p]laques for full payment are also presented.”
A judge must 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]). Although a judge may attend a charitable organization’s fund-raiser and accept an unadvertised award ancillary to the event, he/she “may not be a speaker or guest of honor” at such events (22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][ii]).
Ordinarily, a modest dinner price intended only to generate enough to cover the cost of the meal and related expenses would signify a non-fund-raising event (see Opinion 14-193). However, “the Committee looks to the ‘stated intent of the organization’ as well as the surrounding circumstances in determining ‘whether the activity is or is not a fund-raiser’” (id. [emphasis added]). Here, the judge is aware of significant membership solicitation which takes place every year at the dinner “for considerably larger amounts” than the free memberships included in the price of admission. Moreover, the prominent, ongoing announcements during the dinner about the acceptance of down payments toward the price of silver, gold, life and corporate memberships, and public distribution of plaques to encourage attendees to pay for their membership upgrades in full at the dinner, make clear the dinner’s highly significant fund-raising purpose. In this context, the title of the event (the “Annual Freedom Fund Dinner”), although not determinative, also tends to corroborate this interpretation.
In these circumstances, the judge should not be a guest speaker at this dinner (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][ii]).