Opinion: 99-150

October 21, 1999

Digest: A Family Court judge may accept an award from a governmental child welfare agency whose lawyers appear before the judge, where the judge is being honored for having rendered extraordinary service in the child welfare area prior to becoming a judge and the agency is one in which the judge had served in an executive capacity, provided that certain precautions are taken to avoid references to the judge's judicial performance.

Rule:  22 NYCRR 100.2(A); 100.2(C);
           Opinion 90-184 (Vol. VI).


            A judge of the Family Court inquires whether it is proper to accept an award from a municipal agency responsible for child welfare matters. Attorneys from that agency often appear before the judge. The event is the first annual dinner and both the judge and the co-honoree, a professor of social work, are to be honored for services as "outstanding child welfare professionals." The dinner is not a fund-raiser.

            Given the fact that employees of the agency appear in the judge's court as attorneys, the issue is whether the acceptance of such an honor might convey the impression that the attorneys for the agency "are in a special position to influence the judge" (22 NYCRR 100.2[C]), which could lead to an erosion of "public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." 22 NYCRR 100.2(A).

            The Committee is of the view that under the facts presented, such concerns are not warranted in this instance. The basis for honoring the inquirer is set forth by the Commissioner of the agency in a letter to the Committee, as follows:

As detailed below, we seek to honor Judge _________ for her extensive service on behalf of children and their families prior to her appointment to the bench and for her extra-judicial service after her appointment . . . . I am enclosing Judge ____________'s resume which illustrates some of her considerable service in the cause of children. All of that service precedes Judge ___________'s appointment to the bench . . . . In her position as Deputy General Counsel [and] de facto General Counsel . . . [the judge] managed a staff of more than 230 attorneys in the Family Court. . . . Judge _______ also chaired the agency's Fatality Review Panel which investigates every child fatality within families that have had some prior contact with the child welfare system. Previously, she also headed the _________ Juvenile Rights Division of The Legal Aid Society.

As an attorney Judge _________ participated in some of the most important class action litigations affecting children in foster care. These included such landmark issues as the most appropriate placement of children in foster care, rights of youngsters who "age out" of foster care at 18 years of age and the rights of relatives (kinship care) as foster parents.

Judge _________ has written and lectured extensively on child welfare matters and has served on numerous committees and organizations promoting the welfare of children and the legal systems which serve them.

            We are of the opinion that in light of the basis for the award being given, the possible dangers alluded to above are not present, and therefore the judge may be honored at this event. See also, Opinion 90-184 (Vol. VI) [judge may be honored at an annual dinner of ethnic police association].

            But this does not mean that certain precautions should not be taken by the judge. It is incumbent upon the judge to take affirmative steps to avoid any focusing upon the inquirer's judicial performance. The judge should inform the agency that there should be no reference at the event or in the award to any decisions or other judicial actions taken by the judge. For, while it may not be possible to ignore the fact that the honoree is presently a judge, it is not proper to accept an award from this particular agency predicated upon decisions or determinations made as a judge, especially if the agency's attorneys had appeared in such matters. It is the inquirer's responsibility to see that this does not occur.