Opinion 23-108


September 7, 2023


Digest:  A judge may not accept an award prominently sponsored by a commercial entity, even where the award is unannounced and ancillary to a fund-raising event for a not-for-profit organization.  However, nothing in the rules precludes the judge from attending the underlying fund-raiser.


Rules:   22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(C)(3)(b)(i)-(ii), (iv); Opinions 22-107; 14-45; 12-187; 11-37.




          The inquiring full-time judge asks if he/she may accept an unannounced award at a fund-raising event for a not-for-profit charitable, cultural, or civic organization, where the award is prominently sponsored by a for-profit business entity.[1]  The award to the judge would be one of approximately 40 awarded that night.  After the event, awardees are listed on the not-for-profit organization’s website, in a manner that associates the award recipient’s name and photograph together with the award’s sponsor. 


          A judge must avoid impropriety and its appearance in all the judge’s activities (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 personally participate in the solicitation of funds (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3][b][i]), or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3][b][iv]) or to advance the private interests of the judge or others (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]).  A judge “may attend” fund-raising events for not-for-profit educational, religious, charitable, cultural, fraternal or civic organizations but may not be “a speaker or the guest of honor” unless an exception applies (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3][b][ii]).  Specifically, a judge may accept “an unadvertised award ancillary to” such events and may also be “a speaker or guest of honor at a court employee organization, bar association or law school function” (id.).


          Thus, a judge may ordinarily accept an unadvertised award ancillary to a not-for-profit organization’s fund-raising event, even when the judge may not be a speaker or the guest of honor at the event (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3][b][ii]).  Although the requirement that the award be “unadvertised” means that advertisements, invitations, and other advance materials must not mention the judge or the award prior to the fund-raising event, we have nonetheless advised that the award may be announced during and after the event, including in subsequent press coverage of the event (see e.g. Opinions 14-45; 11-37).


          Here, however, the award offered to the judge at the fund-raiser is being expressly and exclusively sponsored by a commercial entity.  The not-for-profit organization’s website will display information about the awards given at the fund-raiser, prominently linking the award recipients with their respective award sponsors.  The press coverage and other publicity will likewise connect the winner of the award with the award’s sponsor.


          On these facts, where the award to be conferred is inextricably tied to its sponsorship by a featured for-profit business entity, we conclude that acceptance by the judge would impermissibly lend the prestige of judicial office to a commercial entity (cf. Opinions 12-187 [judge may not be an award recipient at a “for-profit awards banquet sponsored by a commercial legal publisher,” as this would impermissibly lend the prestige of the office to private interests]; 22-107 [judge may not be the advertised “run leader” for a free run/walk, where a business entity will be promoted as the sole sponsor of the event]).[2]


            We thus conclude the judge may not accept this commercially sponsored award, even if the award is unannounced and ancillary to the event.  However, the judge may still attend the underlying fund-raiser for the not-for-profit charitable, cultural, or civic organization as a regular attendee (see 22 NYCRR 100.3[C][3][b][ii]).


[1] The award sponsor appears to be a large family-owned corporation which manufactures and sells a certain category of products.

[2] We note that Opinion 22-107 addressed several distinctive facts which implicate aspects of the rules inapplicable here.