The Judicial Ethics Forum (JEF)

An Academic Discussion of Judicial Ethics, Discipline & Disqualification

ABA Ethics Committee Remembers the “Other” Ethics Code

Posted by kswisher on Wednesday, February, 4, 2009

I presumably speak for the profession when I say that I generally hold the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility (aka the Ethics Committee) in high esteem.  That said, when it recently revisited the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, it reminded me how rare those visits can be.  It appears that the Committee has directly addressed judicial ethics only two times in the last twenty-five years.  (I did not check prior to 1984.)  By any measure, then, the Code is suffering from a lack of attention.  Interestingly, the Ethics Committee even has an adjunct component dedicated to Code insight, the Judges Advisory Committee.  Interestingly as well, the only two opinions were both issued within the last two years.  That is cause for optimism, as it seems that the current Committee (although the roster has changed slightly) is more sensitive to judicial ethics problems. 

Your next question might understandably be — what problems managed to catch the Committee’s eye after all of these years?  The first is Formal Opinion 07-449, which addresses both the Model Rules and Model Code.  With respect to judges, the Committee concludes:

Pursuant to Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11(A), the judge in . . . a situation [in which she is being represented in an unrelated matter by an attorney appearing before her] must disqualify herself from the proceeding over which she is presiding if she maintains a bias or prejudice either in favor of or against her lawyer.  This disqualification obligation also applies when it is another lawyer in her lawyer’s firm who is representing a litigant before her. However, absent such a bias or prejudice for or against her lawyer, under Judicial Code Rule 2.11(C), the judge may continue to participate in the proceeding if the judge discloses on the record that she is being represented in the other matter by one of the lawyers, and the parties and their lawyers all consider such disclosure, out of the presence of the judge and court personnel, and unanimously agree to waive the judge’s disqualification.

If a judge is obligated to make disclosures in compliance with Judicial Code Rule 2.11(C), refuses to do so, and insists upon presiding over the matter in question, the lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality under Model Rule 1.6 ordinarily would prohibit his disclosing to his other client his representation of the judge without the judge’s consent, rendering it impossible to obtain the client’s consent to the dual representation, as required by Model Rule 1.7(b). The lawyer’s continued representation of the judge in such a circumstance constitutes an affirmative act effectively assisting the judge in her violation of the Judicial Code, and thereby violates Model Rule 8.4(f). The lawyer (or another lawyer in the lawyer’s firm), in that circumstance, is obligated to withdraw from the representation of the judge under Model Rule 1.16.

The second opinion, Formal Opinion 08-452, is even more remarkable, in that it addresses only judicial ethics.  Although the opinion gives no clear cut answers, its conclusion is easy to summarize: “A judge who participates in fundraising activities on behalf of a court, including a ‘therapeutic’ or ‘problem-solving’ court, must limit the participation to activities permitted by Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 3.7(A).  The judge also must ensure that her conduct does not violate Judicial Code Rules 3.1 [general limitations on extrajudicial activities], 1.2 [promoting confidence in the judiciary], or 1.3 [avoiding the abuse of the prestige of judicial office].”  Perhaps the clearest answer is contained in Rule 3.7(A)(2), which permits direct solicitation for contributions “only when the persons being solicited are [a] members of the judge’s family or [b] other judges over whom the judge has no supervisory authority.”

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