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Ethical Opinions for Clerks of the Courts
Dear Clerk-Magistrate ___________:
This letter is in response to your email to the Committee dated August 18, 2015, seeking guidance as to the propriety of your service as a Master of Ceremonies at the __________ Court Law Day Ceremonies in 2016.
You are the Clerk-Magistrate in the __________ Court where you celebrate Law Day each spring. You are historically the person who personally schedules and books all components of the event, except for the deciding upon the recipient of the District Attorney’s Award. You also serve as Master of Ceremonies. People in attendance at the Law Day Ceremonies at the Court include court staff, police, attorneys, press, and representatives from the private sector.
You state that a Massachusetts attorney would like to make a financial contribution to the Law Day Ceremonies, although the extent of his proposed contribution is not clear. You note that although this attorney has practiced in the __________ Court in the past, you do not remember his appearing in the Court since you were appointed. It is possible that his contributions would include, but not be limited to, providing food, prizes, gift certificates, scholarships, or the like. Although you would not choose the recipients of the gift certificates or prizes, you may assist the attorney in devising some fair method of distribution. Your question is whether, under those circumstances, it would be permissible for you to run this event as Master of Ceremonies.
The provisions of Canon 4 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Clerks of the Courts are relevant to your inquiry. Specifically, Canon 4(D) allows a clerk to use his title to engage in activity "to improve the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice," therefore a clerk's participation in law day activities is permissible under this Canon. The same Canon, however, addresses impartiality and disqualification, and states in pertinent part that, “A Clerk-Magistrate shall not convey the impression that any person is in a special position to influence the Clerk-Magistrate....” Canon 4(A). As frequently noted by this Committee, the appearance of impartiality is as important as actual impartiality in promoting public trust and confidence in the courts of the Commonwealth. "...[T]he integrity of the judicial system...must not only be beyond suspicion but must appear to be so.” Mass. Bar Assn. v. Cronin, 351 Mass. 321, 326 (1966).
Under certain circumstances, your serving as Master of Ceremonies while accepting the donation could implicate the appearance of impartiality. Although he has not done so in the recent past, if it is likely that in the future the donating attorney or attorneys who practice with him will appear before the court where you work, your impartiality may be implicated. Similarly, public attribution regarding the donating attorney's sponsorship of the event could be problematic. The Committee notes that issues regarding appearance of impartiality can be avoided if the contributing attorney instead provided his intended donation(s) directly to a local city or county bar association affiliated with this event, and that association could then make the contribution to the event without attribution to this particular attorney or firm.
In sum, it is the view of the Committee that you may serve as Master of Ceremonies provided such service does not convey the impression that any person is in a special position to influence you as Clerk-Magistrate. If you do not directly accept money from the lawyer for the Law Day event, particularly if the lawyer is likely to appear before you in the future, any appearance issues would be mitigated.
Christine P. Burak, Esq.
Secretary, Advisory Committee on Ethical Opinions