Opinion  CJE Opinion No. 2016-06

Date: 06/08/2016
Organization: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Letter Opinion of the Committee on Judicial Ethics

Table of Contents

Speaking at Community Family Day

You have asked whether accepting an invitation to be the guest speaker at the third annual Community Family Day in a Springfield neighborhood is permissible under the Code of Judicial Conduct(1)This late-July daytime event is held in an urban park that, according to a media report describing last year's event, had been largely abandoned by families due to concern over gang and criminal activity. The neighborhood civic association that oversees Community Family Day is dedicated to creating a better future for this city by helping to "return [neighborhoods] to the vibrant and thriving areas they once were." Community Family Day is free, non-political, and non-partisan, and is open to the general public. Among the many past and present sponsors of this event are local businesses, community centers and neighborhood councils, local colleges, ambulance companies, and law enforcement organizations, including the Springfield Police and Fire Departments, the Massachusetts State Police, the Hampden County Sheriff's Department, Hampden County Probation, and the Hampden County District Attorney's Office.  Although a large number of sponsors are unconnected to law enforcement, "reconnecting and rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the community" is one specific goal of event organizers. To this end, children who wish to participate in a raffle may obtain free raffle tickets only if they first have a conversation with a police officer, fire fighter, or paramedic.

Rules 3.1 and 3.7 of the 2016 Code of Judicial Conduct are relevant to this opinion. In pertinent part, Rule 3.1 requires a judge to avoid any extrajudicial activity that would appear to a reasonable person to interfere with the proper performance of the judge's judicial duties or to undermine the judge's independence, integrity, or impartiality. Subject to compliance with Rule 3.1, Rule 3.7(A)(6) permits a judge to serve as a featured or keynote speaker at a community event sponsored by a civic organization. More generally, so long as a judge acts in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary (which of course requires avoiding conduct that compromises or appears to compromise judicial independence or impartiality), the 2016 Code encourages judges "to initiate and participate in appropriate community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice" (Rule 1.2, Comment [6]).  This emphasis on encouraging and enabling judges to be actively engaged in the legal community and the community at large is one of the key differences between the 2016 Code and the predecessor Code. (See Final Report of the Committee to Study the Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct on the 2016 Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct at 15-16, 30)

The Committee on Judicial Ethics concludes that the 2016 Code of Judicial Conduct permits you to serve as the guest speaker at Community Family Day. In reaching this result, we are influenced by the wide array of businesses, educational institutions, and civic organizations that sponsor this community-wide family-friendly event. However, because a large number of law enforcement agencies are among the sponsors, we set forth several cautions designed to prevent you from unintentionally conveying to the public any erosion or blurring of the line of demarcation between law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. The person who introduces you should not be connected with law enforcement. Both in your remarks and your conduct, you must be careful to avoid conveying -- or permitting others to convey -- that law enforcement personnel are in a special position to influence you. We also note that the letter inviting you to speak suggested that your "brief address [be] related to education, activism, and community cooperation with our local law enforcement." While your remarks may address the importance of education, civic engagement, and community building, you should avoid the subject of community cooperation with local law enforcement for the reasons stated above.

(1) This opinion relies on the facts you have provided to the Committee on Judicial Ethics, supplemented by a media report where noted. If material facts have been omitted or misrepresented, this opinion is without force and effect.

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