May 5, 2022
Digest: A judge may not write a letter of congratulations to the judge’s parent to be read aloud at an upcoming political fund-raiser sponsored by a political organization, which is being held outside the judge’s window period for political activity.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.5(A)(1); 100.5(A)(1)(c); 100.5(A)(1)(d); 100.5(A)(1)(g)-(h); 100.5(A)(2); Opinions 12-169; 00-47.
The inquiring judge’s parent is being honored at an upcoming political fund-raising event sponsored by a political organization1 The judge asks if it is permissible to write a letter of congratulations addressed to the judge’s parent, to be read aloud at the event. The event is not taking place within the judge’s window period for election or re-election to judicial office.
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 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 sitting judge must not “directly or indirectly engage in any political activity” unless an exception applies (22 NYCRR 100.5[A]). Among other prohibitions, a judge may not solicit funds for, pay an assessment to, or make a contribution to any political organization or candidate (see 22 NYCRR 100.5[A][h]); may not permit their name to be “used in connection with any activity of a political organization” (22 NYCRR 100.5[A][d]); and may not attend “political gatherings” except as permitted during the judge’s own window period for election or re-election to judicial office (compare 22 NYCRR 100.5[A][g] with 22 NYCRR 100.5[A]).
We have advised that a judge may not attend a dinner sponsored by a political party’s county committee, which is honoring the judge’s parent, even if the judge would be “present only for the part of the program honoring the parent” (Opinion 00-47). We noted that the event was “clearly a political gathering” and therefore “attendance in and of itself is prohibited” whether or not there is “any active participation in the event by the judge” (id.).
We have nonetheless recognized that “the special nature of the parent-child bond must be accounted for when addressing judicial ethics” (Opinion 12-169). In that opinion, the judge’s adult child was “running unopposed for election to public office” and the child’s election committee was sponsoring a reception “at a local restaurant shortly after election day” to celebrate the child’s victory (id.). We concluded the judge may attend, emphasizing both that “the event is not a fund-raiser” (id. [emphasis added]) and that the “judge’s attendance at the reception is in the obvious role of a parent” (id. [internal quotations, brackets and citation omitted]).
In the present inquiry, the judge does not seek to attend the event in person, but instead would like to participate in absentia by submitting a letter addressed to the parent that would be read aloud at the function.
Here, while the judge’s desire to submit a letter recognizing their parent’s achievements clearly reflects the parent-child bond, the event is unambiguously a political fund-raiser sponsored by a political organization that is closely associated with a political party. We conclude the judge’s proposed participation goes beyond what is contemplated and authorized in Opinion 12-169. As no exception permits this judge to attend or participate in the event on the facts presented, the judge may not write a letter of congratulations addressed to the judge’s parent to be read aloud at an upcoming fund-raising event sponsored by this political organization.
1 While this organization is not itself a political party, it is very closely aligned with one party. For example, it solicits only that party’s nominees for possible endorsement, its name references the party, and its website heavily promotes that party and its platform.