January 27, 2022
Digest: A judge who is a community college trustee may attend a conference solely sponsored by a non-political, not-for-profit organization of college trustees, notwithstanding the conference’s designation as a national legislative summit. However, the judge must not meet with federal legislators in connection with the conference, where such meetings will be seen as lobbying efforts in support of the organization’s legislative agenda.
Rules: NY Const art VI § 20(b)(1); 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.5(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(iii) Opinions 21-179; 21-142; 20-169; 20-70; 10-130; 98-160; 94-104; 94-63; 90-32.
A part-time judge who serves as a trustee of a community college1 asks if it is ethically permissible to attend and participate in the national legislative summit of the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT), a 501(c)(3) “non-profit educational organization of governing boards, representing more than 6,500 elected and appointed trustees who govern over 1,200 community, technical, and junior colleges in the United States and beyond.” The ACCT’s mission is “to foster the principles and practices of exemplary governance while promoting high quality and affordable higher education, cutting-edge workforce and development training, student success and the opportunity for all individuals to achieve economic self-sufficiency and security.” The ACCT’s national legislative summit is “designed to inform and educate community college leaders on federal policy issues that impact post-secondary initiatives and students. Summit participants will hear from members of U.S. Congress, leading political analysts and other high-profile speakers about the current climate in D.C., recent elections, and legislative issues impacting community colleges.” If it is permissible to attend the conference, the judge would also like to schedule “information sharing” sessions with members of Congress whose districts encompass the region served by the community college. The conference materials include detailed instructions for scheduling meetings, starting with a sample cover letter to legislators requesting a meeting to “discuss ongoing activities on our campuses and our legislative priorities for 2022.” Participants are instructed to “ask for support” from the legislator and then fill out a form afterward to report back to the ACCT on the participant’s impressions of the meetings and the legislator’s level of support of the ACCT’s priorities.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2) and must always act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]). A judge may engage in extra-judicial activities but must ensure that any such activity (1) does not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge; (2) does not detract from the dignity of judicial office; and (3) does not interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties and is not incompatible with judicial office (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A]-). A judge must not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]) and must refrain from directly or indirectly engaging in political activity except as expressly permitted by the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]). We have also advised that judges must not publicly associate themselves with organizational positions on controversial issues (see Opinion 20-70).
1. Attending the ACCT’s Conference
In Opinion 21-142, we said a judge may attend a conference co-sponsored by a non-political, not-for-profit charitable and educational organization and a legislative task force. Where, as here, the inquiring judge is ethically permitted to serve as a community college trustee, we conclude it is also ethically permissible for the judge to attend a legislative summit solely organized by the ACCT, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational organization of community college governing boards. In this regard, we note the agenda appears to consist primarily of informational, non-partisan programs.
2. Meeting with Federal Legislators in Connection with the Conference
With respect to meeting with Congressional representatives for “information sharing” sessions, the conference materials make clear that the ACCT expects conference participants to promote the organization’s legislative agenda in such meetings. While a judge may engage in limited political activity on behalf of “measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice” (22 NYCRR 100.5[A][iii]), this exception does not apply to the legislative agenda described here. We have said a part-time judge who serves as a library trustee “may not participate in State and local lobbying efforts and other activities of the Board” (Opinion 98-160). As we explained, because the library’s legislative agenda “does not relate to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice,” such lobbying “amounts to prohibited political activity” (id.). Similarly, a judge may not meet with legislators to promote a not-for-profit organization’s legislative agenda regarding boxing safety and administration, even though it is permissible to serve on the organization’s board (see Opinion 10-130). Nor may a judge serve on the legislative task force of a not-for-profit organization that seeks to develop independent living spaces for individuals with disabilities (see Opinion 21-179).
In light of the clear expectation, set forth in the conference materials, that attendees of the ACCT’s legislative summit will meet with legislators for lobbying purposes, we conclude the judge must not participate in such meetings. We note that an appearance of impropriety would be evident, even if the judge considers the meetings to be mere “information sharing” sessions.
1 A judge who is not subject to the constitutional prohibition on holding “any other public office or trust” (NY Const art VI § 20[b]) may serve by appointment on the board of trustees of a community college which is part of the SUNY system (compare Opinions 90-32; 94-63 with Opinions 20-169; 94-104).