Touring Section of City With Certain Persons

September 26, 1997

CJE Opinion No. 97-8

Your letter requests our advice about the propriety of your acceptance of an invitation from a city's Safe Neighborhood Initiative to participate in a tour of a designated area of that city. The membership of that organization consists of residents and representatives of various governmental agencies, including members of the police department, the offices of the Attorney General and the Suffolk County District Attorney, and the city's housing inspection services. The purpose of the tour is to show members of the court areas of the city affected by activities of defendants who appear before them. Members of city agencies and community groups will explain their specific concerns and their efforts to deal with problems. Newspaper articles about a previous tour indicate that defaults by habitual offenders are among the topics discussed on the tour and that the tours have been instituted in the context of complaints about judicial "softness" toward convicted defendants.

Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides:

"(A) A judge should . . . conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

"(B) [A judge] should not . . . convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence him."

Canon 5(B) further provides: "A judge may participate in civic and charitable affairs that do not reflect adversely upon his impartiality or interfere with the performance of his judicial duties."

We understand that it is important for judges to inform themselves about the communities in which they serve. The proposed tour, however, is to be accomplished under the auspices of a group with an agenda that takes a strong position on one side of issues that come before the court. In our Opinions 91-2 and 95-8, we advised judges against belonging to organizations designed to assist specified categories of individuals when people who fit within those categories might be the subject of litigation before the judges. It was our opinion that such membership would call the impartiality of the judges into question and would have the potential to convey the impression that members of the group had a special position of influence with the judges. We believe that your presence on a tour conducted for the purposes described by the groups you list presents the same danger and is therefore proscribed by Canons 2 and 5.