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Letter Opinion of the Committee on Judicial Ethics
We have received an inquiry from a judge who wishes to speak to community groups under the auspices of a court-sponsored public outreach program(1). The judge asks: (1) whether judges may reassure the public, including groups composed of immigrants or religious minorities, that the courts of Massachusetts are and will remain committed to the rule of law, including the protection of the rights of all persons to due process, equal protection of the laws, equal access to the courts, and fair and respectful treatment; and (2) whether judges may respond to statements made by public officials and others that appear to reflect misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary in our system of government or manifest disrespect for the rule of law. We begin with general observations before turning to the specific inquiries.
The importance of judicial independence is enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the oldest written Constitution still in effect: “It is essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice. It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” Part I, Article XXIX.
In keeping with this constitutional imperative, the Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct recognizes the critical importance of judicial independence and stresses the judiciary's responsibility to preserve the rule of law. The Preamble to the Code states: “An independent, fair, and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The United States legal system is based upon the principle that an independent, impartial, and competent judiciary, composed of persons of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society. Thus, the judiciary plays a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law.” See Preamble .
We answer the judge's questions as follows:
1. May judges engage in outreach activities, including speaking engagements, intended to assure or reassure the Commonwealth's residents and visitors that Massachusetts judges are committed to providing every person a fair hearing before independent and impartial judges dedicated to upholding the rule of law?
Answer: Yes, subject to the parameters discussed above, judges may – and are encouraged to – engage in such outreach activities. In so doing, judges may reach out to individuals, and associations of individuals, who may feel vulnerable due to their race, religion, national origin, citizenship status, or other attribute(s), and remind them that the Massachusetts courts are and will remain committed to upholding the right of every person to obtain equal justice before an independent and impartial judge.
2. In prepared or extemporaneous remarks, may judges respond to comments made by public officials or others that appear to reflect misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary or manifest disrespect for the rule of law?
Answer: Yes, subject to the parameters discussed above, judges may respond to such comments. It is proper for a judge to dispel misconceptions about the role of an independent judiciary and to emphasize the importance of respect for the rule of law, so long as the judge's remarks preserve the dignity of judicial office, would not lead a reasonable person to question the judge’s ability to impartially administer the law, and avoid the implication the judge is influenced by, or appears to be influenced by, partisan or political interests
(1) We note that the American Bar Association has declared March 5 – 11, 2017 National Judicial Outreach Week. The ABA hopes that a broad, coordinated effort by judges will “focus public attention on the rule of law and increase public trust and understanding of the role of the courts in upholding the rule of law.” See http://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial/committees/judicial_outreach_network/judicial_outreach_week.html