May 5, 2022
Digest: A judge with relevant personal knowledge may provide a character reference for a longtime friend’s application to open a bank account overseas where the bank’s form requires a reference from certain designated professions, including judges.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); Opinions 21-130; 14-33; 06-156; 98-103; 89-15.
A full-time judge asks if they may complete a character reference form in support of a longtime friend’s application to open a personal bank account overseas. The bank’s form requires a reference from one of several categories of designated professions, including “Justice of the Peace,” “Attorney-at Law,” “Notary Public,” and “Judge (Resident Magistrate and above).” By signing the form, the judge would “declare” that, “[t]o the best of my knowledge and information, [the applicant] is of good character and in all respects is a fit and proper person to conduct business with your organization.”
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 judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance any private interests and may not testify voluntarily as a character witness (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).
In general, propriety of a reference depends on various factors such “as the judge’s relationship to the individual seeking the reference, the judge’s relationship to the person or entity that will receive the reference, and the nature or purpose of the specific reference” (Opinion 06-156). In Opinion 14-33 (citations omitted), we stated:
In applying Section 100.2(C), the Committee has distinguished between “a strictly private situation, e.g. a letter of reference on behalf of a job applicant known to the judge,” and a letter supporting an individual’s application to a government agency “to make a decision with substantial public implications.” In the latter situation, much greater caution is needed to avoid creating an appearance that the judge is voluntarily testifying as a character witness or improperly lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests before a government agency.
For example, we have consistently advised that a judge with relevant personal knowledge may, at the request of a job applicant, write a letter of reference for the applicant (see Opinion 21-130). Conversely, we advised that a judge may not furnish a letter of reference to a bank to assist a friend in obtaining a business loan (see Opinion 89-15), but may write a letter of reference to the board of a co-operative building on behalf of an individual seeking an apartment (see Opinion 98-103).
Here, we conclude the inquiring judge may complete the bank’s character reference form on the condition that the judge has relevant personal knowledge regarding their longtime friend’s character. Notably, the form specifically solicits references from certain categories of individuals, including judges. The friend’s application to open a foreign bank account is strictly private and without any substantial public implications. Under these circumstances, the judge’s participation cannot reasonably be seen as lending the prestige of judicial office to advance another’s private interests (cf. 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).