June 16, 2016
Digest: A judge may write a letter urging a municipality to add court officers’ names to a memorial honoring first responders who died during rescue efforts following a terrorist attack, even though the municipality has previously declined to add those names.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i), (iv); Opinions 16-01; 15-93; 15-92(B); 10-79; 09-153.
A full-time judge asks whether he/she may, at the request of a court officer, sign a letter urging a municipality to add certain court officers’ names to the municipality’s existing memorial honoring first responders who died during rescue efforts following a terrorist attack.1 The municipality declined earlier to add the names, despite a court officers’ association’s offer to pay for it.
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’s extra-judicial activities must be compatible with judicial office and not cast reasonable doubt on his/her capacity to act impartially as a judge, detract from the dignity of judicial office or interfere with proper performance of judicial duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-).
In Opinion 10-79, the Committee advised that a judge may serve on a committee formed to urge a county legislature to adopt a resolution naming a court building in honor of a deceased judge, and “write a letter in support,” as such activities “would tend to foster respect for the law, the legal system and the administration of justice.” Indeed, “[t]he fact that a majority of legislators previously rejected a similar resolution does not necessarily render the issue so controversial” as to detract from the dignity of judicial office or otherwise interfere with proper performance of judicial duties (Opinion 10-79). Similarly, a judge may remain president of a not-for-profit corporation formed to create a permanent memorial to honor victims of a plane crash and to disburse funds, raised by others, to the victims’ families, if neither the judge nor the corporation would engage in any impermissible fund-raising activities (see Opinion 09-153; 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i], [iv]).
Thus, the Committee concludes this judge may write and sign a letter urging a municipality to honor court officers killed in a terrorist attack. While the matter seems sufficiently controversial that court officers asked judges outside the municipality to weigh in on the issue, the Committee believes that publicly honoring fallen court officers – much like publicly honoring a deceased judge – “would tend to foster respect for the law, the legal system and the administration of justice” (Opinion 10-79). Indeed, this is not the kind of controversy that is likely to detract from the dignity of judicial office or otherwise interfere with proper performance of judicial duties (see id.; 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-). Nor will the judge’s letter involve fund-raising, since a court officers’ group agrees to cover the costs of adding the names.
However, to minimize the risk of inadvertently violating generally applicable limitations on judicial speech and conduct (see e.g. Opinion 15-93), the judge should not sign a form letter, but should write his/her own letter. If the judge wishes to use judicial stationery, it must be marked “personal and unofficial” (see e.g. Opinions 16-01; 15-92[B] [defining “judicial stationery”]).
1 The judge presides in a different county and judicial district than the municipality where the memorial is located.
l is located.