April 23, 2015
Digest: A judge may attend a dispute mediation service’s volunteer recognition dinner, whether it is held at a public venue or a private residence.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.3(B)(6); 100.3(B)(8); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); Opinions 14-41; 01-57; 94-147; 89-46; 89-23.
A full-time judge was invited to attend a dinner “to celebrate the efforts of” mediation service volunteers, and expects to receive similar invitations in the future. The organization contracts with the Unified Court System to provide alternative dispute resolution services. He/she explains the organization is already active in another nearby court, but “would like to become more active” in the judge’s court. The judge believes the volunteer recognition dinner is a private function “with a closed guest list,” rather than an event “open to the public at a public place.” The judge asks if he/she may attend.
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 may generally engage in extra-judicial activities so long as those activities are not incompatible with judicial office and do not 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]-).
However, a judge may socialize with persons who appear in the judge’s court, subject to generally applicable limitations on judicial speech and conduct. For example, the Committee has advised a full-time judge may attend a non-fundraising dinner of a local community service agency to honor persons for volunteer service to the court (see Opinion 94-147); a fund-raising dinner of a legal services organization which represents litigants in the judge’s court (see Opinion 89-46); or a birthday party for an attorney who frequently represents clients before the judge (see Opinion 89-23). A judge may also attend a fund-raising dinner for a not-for-profit organization that provides assistance and advocates for victims of domestic violence, and whose “volunteers ... ‘sometimes attend my court and accompany complaining witnesses in domestic violence cases’ before the judge” (Opinion 14-41). Also, the Committee has advised a Family Court judge may attend a non-fund-raising reception hosted by a not-for-profit Mediation Center to which the Family Court makes referrals, where the reception is intended to honor “the judge, the local director of the Office of Probation and Community Correction, and its volunteer mediators for their support of alternate dispute resolution” (Opinion 01-57).
The Committee likewise concludes the inquiring judge may attend the mediation service’s volunteer recognition dinner. The fact that the organization contracts with the Unified Court System to provide a public service does not create an appearance of impropriety or raise a reasonable question as to the judge’s impartiality. Nor does it matter, under these circumstances, whether the event is in a private residence or a public venue. As always, the judge must be careful to abide by all applicable restrictions on judicial speech and conduct. For example, the judge should not discuss any pending or impending cases (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]) and “should absent him/herself if there is any discussion of a case that is currently pending before the judge” (Opinion 14-41; see also 22 NYCRR 100.3[B]).