Opinion 17-146

October 19, 2017


Digest:         A judge may attend a free public conference on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children, where the program will focus primarily on helping identify and assist at-risk youth.


Rules:          22 NYCRR 100.0(S); 100.1; 100.2; 100.4(A)(1)-(3); Opinions 17-04; 15-26/15-44; 12-74.


         A judge asks if it is permissible to attend a free conference focusing on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. The event is co-sponsored by a county youth bureau, the county government, a local medical institution, and a local charitable organization. The conference “is geared for social workers, counselors, teachers, law enforcement, first responders and anyone who works directly with children” and spots are available to the public on a first come, first served basis. The keynote speaker is an adult who experienced human trafficking and sexual exploitation as a child. The conference will also feature “[i]nteractive sessions with experts” in street outreach, a human trafficking coordinator and safe harbor coordinator from another jurisdiction, and a representative from the FBI. The organizers hope attendees will “take the information back to your organization to help identify youth who are being trafficked or commercially sexually exploited and those youth who are at risk in order to seek services for those youth in need.”

         A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must uphold public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity, impartiality, and independence (see 22 NYCRR 100.1; 100.0[S] [“An ‘independent’ judiciary is one free of outside influences or control.”]). A judge’s extra-judicial activities must not be incompatible with judicial office and must not (1) cast reasonable 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 (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][1]-[3]).

         We recognized the community benefits from having judges take an active part in community affairs whenever possible, including in community efforts to prevent juvenile delinquency (see e.g. Opinion 12-74) or to help extricate domestic violence victims from abusive relationships (see Opinion 15-26/15-44 [analyzing the ethical propriety of a judge’s involvement in a variety of domestic violence related events]). Of course, the event must not be so extraordinarily one-sided in nature that the judge’s mere attendance would necessarily cast doubt on his/her ability to be impartial (see id.). Here, the subject matter of the conference, i.e. helping prevent or reduce human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children by assisting at-risk youth, does not appear to be unduly controversial or one-sided.

         We distinguish Opinion 17-04, in which we advised that a judge may not attend a human trafficking seminar sponsored by federal prosecutorial and law enforcement agencies, where the program will focus primarily on strategies for effective prosecution (see Opinion 17-04). This program, by contrast, is not sponsored by law enforcement agencies, but by multiple governmental and charitable entities, and the focus is on assisting at-risk youth and victims, rather than on prosecutorial strategies. Thus, it is primarily “educational in nature and is unlikely to be perceived as a law enforcement program” (Opinion 12-74).

          Under these circumstances, we conclude the judge’s participation is not likely to compromise public confidence in the judge’s impartiality nor conflict with any of the judge’s judicial obligations. It is therefore permissible.