September 10, 2020
Digest: A judge may display photographs and other memorabilia of current and former elected federal officials in his/her chambers but must be mindful of the overall content, context and circumstances of the display to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(B); 100.2(C); 100.5(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(e); Opinions 19-50; 09-240/09-241/10-06.
A judge asks if he/she may display signed photographs of two elected federal officials in chambers. One of them, a sitting federal official, is seeking re-election; the other has retired from public life. The judge considers his/her chambers to be semi-public space, as he/she sometimes invites in attorneys to conference cases.1 However, no litigants are permitted in the room.
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 sitting judge must not “directly or indirectly engage in any political activity” unless an exception applies (22 NYCRR 100.5[A]). Moreover, the rules expressly prohibit publicly endorsing another candidate for public office (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A][e]) or lending the prestige of judicial office to advance any private interest (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
The question here is whether displaying photographs of current or former elected federal officials in chambers may be seen as lending prestige of judicial office to advance a private interest, publicly endorsing that elected official, or otherwise creating an appearance of impropriety. We find that it does not. There is room under the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct for “collegiality among holders of public office” as well as “civil relations and discourse between the various branches of government” (Opinion 09-240/09-241/10-06 [judge may attend the swearing-in ceremony for a newly-elected public official, even if paid for with campaign funds]). As described, the autographed photographs here are essentially collectibles or memorabilia; they cannot reasonably be seen as campaign materials or endorsement by the judge.2 Accordingly, he/she may display them in chambers.
We caution the judge to carefully consider the content, context and circumstances under which these photographs or other such memorabilia are to be displayed. It is important that any display not cause attorneys or other invitees into the judge’s chambers to be concerned that the judge is allowing “political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment” (22 NYCRR 100.2[B]).
1 We have previously distinguished between “the courtroom, a uniquely public place in which cases are adjudicated” and potentially more private areas, such as a judge’s chambers (Opinion 19-50 n 1).
2 Of course, with the passage of time, even campaign posters may become mere historical memorabilia.