Your letter indicates that a judge's organization has been participating in programs sponsored by the United States Information Agency, a division of the United States Department of State. The goal of these programs is to promote the "Rule of Law" in foreign countries, particularly the People's Republic of China and African nations.
The USIA will completely underwrite the cost of travel for Chinese judges to come to the United States and for the United States judges to travel to Africa. However, the USIA will only cover a small portion of the travel costs of U.S. judges to China. The Northeast Chapter of the American Corporate Counsel Association (ACCA) has given the judge's organization a tentative indication that its Association would be willing to pay those costs for Massachusetts judges to travel to China not covered by the USIA.
As the head of the organization, you have requested an opinion from this Committee as to whether the Canons of Judicial Ethics would prohibit acceptance by a judge of payment, either directly or through the organization, of these travel expenses when the payment is made by ACCA.
ACCA has stated to the organization that it is in the interest of their members to promote the rule of law in China as the honoring of contracts, copyrights, and patents is crucial to doing business there. Although Canon 2(B) states, inter alia, that a judge should not lend the prestige of his office to advance the private interest of others, we do not think that provision is invoked here when the interest involved is so broadly defined as promoting the rule of law.
Nevertheless, we think the Canons of Judicial Ethics prohibit a judge from accepting payment for travel costs by the ACCA directly or through the organization.
Canon 2(A) states, in part, that "A judge should . . . conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." The application of Canon 2(A) to gifts from bar associations to judges has been examined many times by state courts and other state advisory committees. Two consistent themes run through these opinions. First, a judge faced with this issue must examine the nature of the bar association. See, for example, In re: Petition of Wiley, 671 A 2d, 308 (R.I. 1966), where the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a judge could attend the annual dinner-dance of a Trial Lawyers Association as a guest of the Association since membership in the organization was open to all lawyers interested in litigation, not just lawyers who represented plaintiffs. Secondly, a judge must examine the nature of the gift offered by the bar association. See, for example, Arizona Advisory opinion 95-13, where a judge was advised that a reasonable objective observer would not question a judge's impartiality "merely because a judge consumed cocktails and appetizers" at a particular bar association's function.
Your request to this Committee concerns a specialty bar association offering a substantial gift (the underwriting of travel expenses to China). The attorneys involved in this organization generally represent a particular class of clients. Every officer and member of the board of directors of the Northeast Chapter of ACCA represents a well-known corporation. Most, if not all of these businesses, are likely to be engaged in litigation before the courts of this Commonwealth.
Under the circumstances, we think that a disinterested objective person could reasonably question a judge's impartiality when members of the ACCA or their clients appear before that judge if that judge accepted the payment of his or her travel expenses as described in your letter. Our opinion is the same whether the gift is made directly to a judge or through the organization.