May 4, 2017
Digest: A judge who declined his/her college alma mater’s invitation to be an honorary co-chair of a fund-raising event and, after receiving the printed invitation listing the judge as a co-chair, objected in writing and requested a retraction, is not obligated to take any further steps. The judge may attend the event, where doing so will create no appearance of impropriety.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i)-(ii), (iv); Opinions 15-60; 11-35; 08-122; 07-118; 04-133.
The inquiring judge’s college alma mater asked him/her to serve as an honorary co-chair of a fund-raising event. The judge declined because it would violate judicial ethics rules, but advised the college that he/she planned to attend the event. When the judge received the printed invitation, however, his/her name was listed, with the prefix “Hon.,” as one of over a dozen honorary co-chairs. The judge immediately sent a letter to the event organizer advising that his/her name must be removed from any further invitations or solicitations, and that the event committee must issue a retraction indicating that the judge did not agree to serve a co-chair. It appears the college is cooperating with the judge’s request, and the invitation did not specifically request any contributions in the judge’s honor or create any special appearance that the judge was personally engaged in fund-raising. The judge now asks if he/she must take any further steps and whether he/she may attend the event.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge may not personally solicit funds (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][i]) or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][iv]). A judge may attend fund-raising events for not-for-profit educational organizations but may not be a speaker or guest of honor at such events unless an exception applies (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][b][ii]). Specifically, a judge may accept “an unadvertised award ancillary to” such events, and may also be “a speaker or guest of honor at a court employee organization, bar association or law school function” (id.).
Applying these principles, the Committee has advised that a judge may not be an honorary chair of a charitable fund-raiser if his/her role is advertised or announced in advance (see e.g. Opinions 08-122; 07-118).
Where, as here, the judge promptly objected in writing and requested removal of his/her name from the invitation and a retraction indicating that the judge did not agree to serve as a co-chair of the fund-raiser, the judge is not obligated to take any further steps (see Opinions 04-133; 11-35).
Further, as the college has advised the judge that no further invitations or solicitations will be issued listing him/her as co-chair and a retraction letter will be issued to all invitees, and as there were no requests for additional donations specifically in the judge’s honor or other circumstances creating an appearance of impropriety, the judge may attend the event (compare Opinion 15-60 with Opinion 11-35).