Opinion 19-138

December 12, 2019


Digest:         A judge may not participate in a conference call organized by a federal legislator to help plan an event on Capitol Hill for individuals of a particular ethnic/cultural heritage, where the program topics are legislative and political in nature.


Rules:          22 NYCRR 100.2(A); 100.3(A); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.5(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(iii); Opinions 17-38; 16-60; 04-27; 97-152.


         A judge asks if he/she may join a conference call scheduled by a federal legislator to help establish an agenda for an upcoming event on Capitol Hill. He/she previously hosted this one-day event at the U.S. Capitol for those of a particular ethnic/cultural heritage nationwide to gather and attend workshops on issues such as “immigration, education, and the workforce, the U.S. economy and trade.” The conference call will plan the agenda for next year’s event. So far, the agenda tentatively will include an “opening session,” followed by “breakout sessions” and “meetings with Members of Congress.”

         A judge must respect and comply with the law and must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). As a judge’s judicial duties take precedence over all the judge’s other activities (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[A]), any extra-judicial activities must not be incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][3]). Indeed, a judge’s extra-judicial activities must not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge, detract from the dignity of judicial office, or interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][1]-[3]). A judge also must not “directly or indirectly engage in any political activity” except as expressly permitted (22 NYCRR 100.5[A][1]). For example, a judge may engage in certain political activities “on behalf of measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice” (22 NYCRR 100.5[A][1][iii]).

         Clearly, issues involving “immigration, education, and the workforce, the U.S. economy and trade” are hot-button political topics which can draw heated debates over highly controversial matters. We have said a judge may not attend as a spectator a “legislative weekend” or “Task Force Conference” organized by a caucus of legislators, where the activities or programs are legislative and political in nature (see Opinions 97-152; 04-27). Nor may a judge join an informal discussion group with politically connected individuals to develop detailed proposals covering highly controversial or political matters largely unrelated to the law, the legal system or the administration of justice (see Opinion 16-60). A judge also may not call a Senate committee to express an opinion on a pending federal executive branch appointment or sign a MoveOn.org petition concerning the appointment, whether as a private citizen or otherwise (see Opinion 17-38).

         Here, too, we believe a judge may not help plan an essentially political event organized and sponsored by a federal legislator concerning legislative and political topics. Accordingly, the judge may not participate in the proposed conference call.