Related to:

Opinion Opinion 2005-3

Date: 06/27/2005
Organization: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Ethical Opinions for Clerks of the Courts

Romantic relationship of clerk with attorney with active practice in same court

This is in response to your letter of May 17, 2005 requesting the advice of the committee on the following situation. You are the Clerk of the _______ Court. You write that a sessions clerk in your office has begun a romantic relationship with an attorney with a busy practice in your court. Several partners of that attorney also have very busy practices in the court. You note that, when in the courthouse, both the sessions clerk and the attorney give no indication of their relationship. You have no concern that they discuss any pending matters with each other or that the attorney will get any special treatment at the court from the sessions clerk. Your concern relates solely to the public's perception when it becomes generally known (as you suspect it will) that the couple are dating. You request advice on what steps, if any, you should take to protect the court from any unnecessary criticism. You fear that in the future an unsuccessful litigant may try to suggest some impropriety because of the relationship.

We view your request to the Committee as inquiring whether there are particular actions you, as Clerk-Magistrate, should take to fulfill your duty under Canon 4 to "perform the duties of Clerk-Magistrate impartially and ...[to] act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial branch of government." (1) Under Canon 3(B), your administrative responsibilities include the duty to "supervise subordinate personnel and arrange for their training."

It is our understanding that sessions clerks do not have adjudicative or magisterial responsibilities and that you have no concern that any of your employee's court transactions with her boyfriend are, or could be, perceived as partial. The facts that you have provided suggest that the sessions clerk is aware of the importance of both the reality and appearance of impartiality in the office.

It does not appear that the impartiality of your office can reasonably be questioned because of the relationship that you describe, given the duties of a sessions clerk and the professional demeanor described in your letter. In these circumstances, we see no additional obligations imposed on you by the Code of Professional Responsibility for Clerks of Court. It is, however, suggested that it would be prudent to minimize the opportunity for official interactions between the couple and that you continue to monitor the situation to ensure that it does not compromise the integrity and impartiality of the judicial branch.

(1) The Committee may provide advice only to Clerk-Magistrates, as defined in Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Court, who personally request an opinion.


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