Opinion  CJE Opinion No. 2002-12

Date: 10/17/2002
Organization: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

After the Committee on Judicial Ethics issued this opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court adopted a revised Code of Judicial Conduct. Because this opinion was rendered under a prior version of the Code, a judge should not rely on it without contacting the Committee on Judicial Ethics.

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Committee on Judicial Ethics

Table of Contents

Law School Event Honoring Alumni in Judiciary

You have requested an opinion from the Committee on Judicial Ethics regarding the propriety of your attendance at an event that the law school from which you were graduated is planning. (1) In your request, you state that the event is "designed to get alumnae/i together to see each other and to have a good time, as well as to remind them of the law school's mission and good work." The event will spotlight the graduates of the law school who have since become judges, including you. Last year or the year before, a similar event was held to honor a different group of law school graduates. The judges who will be honored at the upcoming event will receive a certificate or a plaque but nothing of monetary value.

You enclosed with your letter a memorandum, apparently prepared by the law school, that describes the event in greater detail. In short, the memorandum states that the event is designed to recognize the public service rendered by members of the judiciary and the manner in which that public service fosters the spirit with which the law school seeks to imbue its graduates.

The gathering will be held in a local museum. Guests will be able to view a special exhibition that the museum will be hosting at that time, and will have general access to other galleries and collections within the museum. Insofar as costs and cost coverage are concerned, the memorandum states as follows:

"We anticipate in excess of 300 guests. Due to the high production cost for this type of event, which will have a keynote speaker, heavy hors d'oeuvres, open bar and live entertainment, individual tickets to the gala will be sold for $100. Individual ticket purchases are not tax-deductible. Event sponsorships at various levels will also be secured and recognized for underwriting the event expenses. One goal of the steering committee is to ensure that ticket sales and sponsorships cover the entire cost of the event."

The memorandum closes with a brief restatement of the overall goal:

"With the success of this event, which could become the annual event on the School of Law's calendar and celebrate a different aspect of our community each year, we will take another step in sharing the . . . School of Law story, not only with ourselves, but with the community at large." (Emphasis in original)

Canon 2 (B) of the Code of Judicial Conduct is the portion of the Code directly applicable to your request. (2) In relevant part, that Canon says that a judge "should not lend the prestige of his office to advance the private interests of others; nor should he convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence him."

The committee is of the opinion that Canon 2 (B) does not absolutely prohibit your attendance at, or participation in, the planned event. The event is not a fund-raiser for the law school, and its focus on judges, therefore, is not designed to advance the school's financial interests. (3) This distinguishes the event from an otherwise identical kind of event that the committee discussed in CJE Opinion 89-3. See also CJE Opinion 99-17. Nor will the event be tantamount to a judicial exhortation to attend the law school or a judicial testimonial to the benefits of the school's educational program. Contrast CJE Opinion 2000-6. Although a public celebration of graduates of the law school who have become judges may help to enhance the school's reputation in a general way, the thoughts the committee expressed in CJE Opinion 98-1, when it concluded that Canon 2 (B) did not prohibit a law school's distribution of a brochure featuring the names and biographies of its graduates who had become judges, seem equally appropriate here:

"In your situation, the law school would not be capitalizing on your official position in . . . an inappropriate way, but would only enjoy the benefit any educational institution reaps from the success of its graduates -- a benefit which, in our view, is not significant enough to implicate the Canons."

See CJE Opinion 99-10 (judge could attend dinner designed to honor him as organization's "man of the year," where the tickets covered only the cost of the dinner). See also CJE Opinion 98-18 (judge could attend dinner, and appear in a brochure, celebrating an organization's twentieth anniversary).

One aspect of the sponsorship mechanism merits further comment, however. In CJE Opinion 89-1, the committee dealt with a situation in which a certain division of the District Court was contemplating an interior decorating program that would include adorning the walls of public areas with replicas of flags used early in the Nation's history. The cost of the flags was to be borne by individuals and businesses, and a plaque identifying each contributor was to be placed next to the flag that the contribution supported. The committee concluded that Canon 2 (B) prohibited the program because the presence of the plaques . . . in the public hall of the Court may create a public impression that certain attorneys, firms, or area businesses stand in the favor of the Court. In cases in which a donor is a party or an attorney, the Court's appearance of neutrality and impartiality will be compromised regardless of the actual feelings of the judge."

The committee is of the opinion that the availability of sponsorships for the event, and the proposal for public acknowledgment of those sponsorships, presents even more difficult problems with respect to Canon 2 (B) than those raised by the interior decorating program discussed in Opinion 89-1. See also CJE Opinion 92-4. Indeed, public acknowledgment of these sponsorships may well give the appearance that the "high-end" reception, the cost of which exceeds the $30,000 in anticipated ticket revenue, is being effectively co-hosted by the sponsors. No extended discussion is required to support the proposition that Canon 2 (B) prohibits judicial attendance at a public affair hosted by a private group or groups solely to honor the judicial attendees. See generally CJE Opinion 2000-3 and Canon 5 (C) (4) (b) ("a judge . . . should [not] accept a gift, bequest, favor, or loan from anyone except as follows . . . [A] judge . . . may accept ordinary social hospitality"). If, therefore, funding for the event is provided in part by sponsorships and those sponsorships are publicly credited for having made the event possible, the committee is of the opinion that Canon 2 (B) of the Code would prohibit your attendance. (4) In sum, the committee is of the opinion that the Code of Judicial Conduct does not absolutely prohibit your attendance at the planned event. If, however, the costs of the event are underwritten in part by private individuals or organizations whose identity is to be disclosed to the general public, or to those who attend the event, then your attendance would give rise to an appearance that those who contributed were in a special position to influence you, and the Code would prohibit your attendance.

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(1) Your letter does not mention any role that you may have in planning the event, and the committee therefore assumes that you have none. If you were to participate in the planning of the event, however, a series of questions under Canon 5 (B) (2) would inevitably arise.

(2) General Laws c. 268, § 9A, which deals with "testimonials," may also be relevant to your request. See generally CJE Opinion 89-3. The committee is empowered to address only the Code of Judicial Conduct and thus it ventures no opinion on whether the statute bears in any way on the gala that the law school is planning.

(3) In CJE Opinion 99-17, we said that, "[g]enerally speaking, a charitable function is considered a fund-raiser if the guests are requested to donate money or if the tickets are priced to exceed the cost of the function."

(4) A broad variety of financing schemes might well avoid the problem just described. For that reason, the committee does not undertake to speculate about any particular mechanism that may satisfy the Code's requirements.

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