Opinion 23-127


October 26, 2023


Digest:  A judge may congratulate successful youth part participants with a handwritten note, but may not include the note in a gift bag of commercially branded promotional items.


Rules:   22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); Opinions 20-39; 09-68; 09-52; 08-177; 02-77.




          The inquiring judge presides in a youth part and is also active in a coalition of youth part stakeholders who “meet monthly to improve efficiencies and implement new programming.”  The coalition has organized an event to celebrate successful youth part participants, as selected by probation and placement agencies.  The event will feature refreshments, panel discussions, interaction with local athletes, and gift bags of donated goods.  The donated goods include commercially branded items, such as tickets to a baseball game, water bottles and apparel bearing the name of a local sports team, gift cards to a fast-food restaurant, and the like.  The judge asks if it is permissible to include a handwritten congratulatory note inside the gift bags.  Alternatively, the judge asks if they may separately distribute the congratulatory note to the youth and/or the youth’s parents at the event. 


          A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2), must always act to promote public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]), and may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance any private interests (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). 


          We have advised that a treatment court judge may not reward a defendant’s progress in a treatment program with gifts from commercial enterprises such as movie passes or coupons from local restaurants, as this would create an appearance that the judge is “lending the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the commercial interests involved” (Opinion 02-77).  Rather, a judge may reward a defendant’s progress in a treatment program with court-themed gifts of nominal value which do not bear the name of any business entity (see Opinions 08-177; 09-52 [judge may distribute reward credits redeemable for a procedural benefit or privilege]).  In effect, this line of opinions recognizes that a judge may be seen as lending judicial prestige to a company by distributing a promotional item bearing its logo or business name to successful problem-solving court participants.


          Here, of course, it is the stakeholders’ coalition, rather than the judge, which is distributing the gift bags containing items with business entities’ logos or company names.  In our view, this distinction would be fatally undermined by placing the judge’s congratulatory note inside the gift bags, thus creating an appearance that the judge is lending judicial prestige to private business interests (see Opinion 02-77). 


          However, the judge may separately distribute handwritten notes congratulating the participating youth on their success.  A simple letter of congratulations in this context does not undermine public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary (cf. Opinions 20-39 [judge may send notes thanking individuals for acts such as juror service]; 09-68 [judge on a court-sponsored pro bono action committee may sign “formal or handwritten letters or notes of appreciation” to attorneys who accepted pro bono assignments before other judges]).