Opinion 23-83


June 15, 2023


Digest:  Where a court-sponsored committee on racial equality in the courts has been directed to interact with the local community and develop projects that highlight local history, judges on the committee may publicly support an effort to rename a local geographic feature that currently bears a racially offensive name, but must not assume a leadership role in the effort or use judicial or court resources to file the name change application with federal authorities.


Rules:   22 NYCRR 100.1; 100.2; 100.2(A); 100.2(C); 100.4(A)(1)-(3); 100.4(C)(3); Opinions 23-06; 22-178; 22-13; 21-114(A); 21-81; 20-205; 19-120; 19-50; 14-33.




          The inquiring judge is a member and co-chair of their local Equal Justice in the Courts Committee.[1] The committee has been instructed to “make efforts to interact with our community and develop projects that highlight our local history.”  On learning of a local college professor’s efforts to rename certain local geographical features that bear racially offensive names, the inquiring judge and their colleagues on the committee wish to join in the effort to rename a hill in the area.  Accordingly, as co-chair, the judge asks if it is ethically permissible for the judge and the committee to:

1. Publicly advocate for the renaming of the hill; and

2. Either initiate the filing of the application to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to change the name or join in support of that filing.

The judge anticipates the committee would work with the college professor and a combination of local community groups and individuals in the region, and be listed in publications as supporters of the effort.  The advocacy efforts may also include public appearances by the judge or other members of the committee.


          A judge must uphold the judiciary’s integrity and independence (see 22 NYCRR 100.1), 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 participate in extra-judicial activities that are not incompatible with judicial office and do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[A][1]-[3]) and may serve as a member, officer, or director of an organization or governmental agency devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice (see 22 NYCRR 100.4[C][3]).  However, a judge must not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance any private interests (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[C]). 


          As we have recognized, “[w]orking to ensure equal justice in the court system is not merely a laudable goal but an imperative” (Opinion 22-13 [judge may chair a bar association subcommittee that seeks to improve racial equity in the courts]).  Our precedents make clear that judges may take affirmative steps consistent with judicial impartiality to advance equity in the legal system (see Opinions 21-114[A] [“in many circumstances, judges may affirmatively act to promote diversity and inclusion”]; 21-81 [describing many “permissible efforts to improve the legal system by combating invidious discrimination, promoting unbiased treatment, and encouraging full participation by all members of society”]).[2]  Indeed, our prior opinions show that judges may also advance justice and equality in many contexts outside a courtroom (Opinion 22-13 [citations omitted]):


A full-time judge who is president of an ethnic judges’ association may join with officers of an ethnic bar association to meet with law school deans and various executive and legislative branch officials to express concern about the downward trend in minority representation and to advocate for increased diversity within the legal profession. A judge may promote diversity and gender equality in courtroom participation by including a statement in part rules encouraging litigators to give knowledgeable junior colleagues more speaking and leadership roles in the courtroom. A judge also may “participate in a job fair as a representative of a not-for-profit organization in order to encourage members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to” pursue careers as court officers and thereby “promote diversity in the court system”; may establish a judicial mentoring program to help promote diversity in the judiciary; and may more generally “promote diversity by encouraging individuals of particular backgrounds to enter the legal profession.”  Moreover, a judge who is president of an ethnic bar association may, with certain limitations, meet with a district attorney-elect’s transition team to discuss increasing diversity at the DA’s office.


          Importantly, in considering this inquiry, we recognize that this judge is asking as co-chair of a court-sponsored committee on racial equity.  A high-level administrative judge has expressly directed this committee to “interact with the local community” and “highlight local history.”  We thus conclude that a judge’s participation in the effort to remove a racially offensive name from a local geographical feature, as a member of this committee, serves the objectives of the Unified Court System and is essentially an extension of their judicial role.


          However, the permissible extent of the judges’ involvement requires further analysis in light of two lines of prior opinions.  First, we note the proposed renaming may generate local controversy, as similar efforts have done in the past.  We have said judges should exercise caution when considering involvement in matters of substantial local controversy, as such matters may impinge on the public’s perception of the courts’ integrity and impartiality (see e.g. Opinion 19-120 [judge must not insert him/herself unnecessarily into the center of matters of substantial local controversy]).  When a not-for-profit civic or charitable organization is “involved in some impermissibly controversial issues, but also has substantial activities in which a judge may ethically participate,” we have said judges may be members, but not leaders, in the organization (Opinion 23-06 [judge may be a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association]).  In essence, we concluded that a judge may be a regular member of such organizations without running afoul of the rules, while a role as a leader, officer or director of such an organization would impermissibly associate the judge with organizational positions on controversial issues.


          Second, when a person or organization has business before a government entity, we have advised that “greater caution is needed” to avoid creating an appearance that a judge is “improperly lending the prestige of judicial office to advance private interests before a government agency” (Opinion 14-33).  For example, a judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to a not-for-profit organization’s application to public agencies for a discretionary license necessary to its operations (see Opinion 20-205) or in an individual’s application to a government agency for permanent residence in the United States (see Opinion 22-178).  While these precedents are significant, we do not think they bar all involvement on the part of judges, merely because the naming application will ultimately be submitted to a federal agency.  To the contrary, the broad public policy of furthering racial equity in the courts permits these judges, as members of the judiciary’s own Equal Justice in the Courts Committee, to lend judicial prestige to this hill renaming project, in order to foster greater community understanding of the need for fairness in the courts and broader community.


          When weighing all of these factors and balancing the roles of the judges in this effort, we conclude that the Equal Justice in the Courts Committee and its members, in their capacities as members of the committee, may publicly lend support to the renaming effort.  They may, for example, be listed as supporters of the effort to change the hill’s racially offensive name.  However, they should refrain from assuming a leadership role in the effort and must not use judicial resources or court personnel to initiate the name change application to the federal Board of Geographic Names.


[1] The Unified Court System’s Equal Justice Committees are composed of judges and court staff throughout the state. As described by the Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives, these committees are “charged with implementing reforms at the local court level with the aim of changing our institutional culture” while “engaging with members of the bar and community members” (“Equal Justice in the New York State Courts: 2022 Year in Review” at 7). The committees strive to find creative “responses and remedies” that will help “promot[e] a more diverse workforce and judiciary and improv[e] the day-to-day experiences of all who enter and serve in our courts” (id. at 5).

[2] Such steps must still, of course, be consistent with fundamental fairness and judicial impartiality (e.g. Opinion 19-50 [judge may not single out particular groups to be given special “symbolic assurances” of welcome in the courtroom]).