October 22, 2015
Digest: A judge may write to the director of a federally funded medical facility expressing appreciation for care provided to the judge’s deceased parent, and may use judicial stationery marked “personal and unofficial” for this purpose. The judge may not send copies to federal legislators.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); Opinions 14-73; 99-54.
The inquiring judge’s parent spent his/her final days in a federally funded medical facility. The judge asks whether he/she may send a letter to the facility’s director commending the care provided, with copies to local Congresspersons. The judge would like to use judicial stationery marked “Personal and Unofficial.”1
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]). As such, a judge must not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
In Opinion 14-73, a judge wished to write a letter commending a high-ranking federal executive branch employee “for the respectful way that [he/she] treats the public and clergy.” The Committee advised the judge may do so, based on the judge’s personal knowledge of the employee’s actions (see Opinion 14-73). Moreover, the judge may use judicial stationery marked “personal and unofficial” (id.). The Committee reasoned the letter would likely promote civil relations and discourse between branches of government, and “may also help provide positive reinforcement and encouragement for a job well done” (id.). However, the Committee cautioned that “Different considerations could apply ... if the inquiring judge’s letter was offered to support the [recipient’s] application to a government agency” (id.).
The Committee has also advised that a judge may allow a nursing home to display an appreciative letter from the judge on an internal bulletin board “for viewing by employees” (Opinion 99-54 [letter on judicial stationery, marked “personal, unofficial & confidential,” and complimented staff on “the wonderful care they gave to my mother”]). Because the letter would not be “distributed to prospective residents or to the public,” but would be used internally only, such as to boost staff morale, this use of the judge’s letter did not constitute lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests.
This judge may likewise write a letter to the medical facility’s director, commending the facility’s care for the judge’s parent, as this “provide[s] positive reinforcement and encouragement for a job well done” based on the judge’s personal knowledge (Opinion 14-73; cf. Opinion 99-54). The judge may so use judicial stationery, marked “personal and unofficial” (see id.).
However, the judge may not send the letter to federal legislators who may vote to fund the facility. Clearly, the letter does not involve the administration of justice or the judge’s official duties. If the judge were to send copies to such legislators, it would be virtually impossible, to avoid an appearance the judge was promoting the medical facility’s interests and/or lending the prestige of judicial office to influence federal appropriations (see generally 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]; Opinion 99-54).
1 By “judicial stationery,” the Committee means both official stationery the Unified Court System may furnish to a judge, and any stationery an individual judge creates and pays for which denotes his/her status as a sitting judge. It is intended to encompass any stationery or letterhead that is, or appears to be, official stationery of the judge or the court.