Judges Can’t Sell Girl Scout Cookies . . . and Other Little-Known Ethical Rules

We’re holding a seminar on professionalism and ethics for judges at the School of Government next week so I’ve got judicial canons on my mind.  Below are five ethical rules many legal professionals may not know about, but probably should.

1. Judges can’t sell Girl Scout cookies.  Canon 5(B)(2) of the North Carolina Judicial Code prohibits judges from actively assisting civic and charitable organizations in raising funds.  So judges can’t sell Girl Scout cookies or solicit donations for the United Way.  They may, of course, buy said cookies and donate their own funds to the designated cause.  They may even be listed as contributors on a fundraising invitation, but they may not sponsor or host a fundraising event.  Formal Advisory Opinion 2010-07.

2. Judges, who are elected themselves, may not endorse other individuals running for elected office unless the judge also is a candidate.  Canon 7B(2).   Endorsement is broadly defined to include public requests, appeals and announcements, whether oral or written, for support of a person’s efforts to be elected to public office.  Canon 7A(3). It is, however, fairly easy for a judge to become a candidate.  She can do so by publicly declaring her candidacy, filing as a candidate with the State Board of Elections or other appropriate elections authority, or by sending a letter of intent to the chair of the Judicial Standards Commission.  Canon 7A(1).

3. While a judge may write a letter of recommendation for a person based on his personal knowledge of that person, the judge must write the letter on his personal letterhead rather than on official stationary. Canon 2B; Formal Advisory Opinion 2007-02.  The judge may nevertheless mention that he is a judge if that fact is necessary to explain the context of the judge’s observation of the individual.  This rule is designed to honor the principle that “a judge should not lend the prestige of the judge’s office to advance the private interests of others.” Canon 2B.

4. A judge may not serve as an officer, director or manager of any business. Canon 5C(2).  This bright-line rule bars a judge from maintaining the position of manager of a Professional Limited Liability Company—even if the PLLC is inactive.  Formal Advisory Opinion 2009-01.

5. Judges may not mentor attorneys.  Formal Advisory Opinion 2011-03. The Judicial Standards Commission has advised that such a relationship runs afoul several canons, among them the prohibition against practicing law (Canon 5G), the rule that a judge may not lend the prestige of her office to promote the private interests of others (Canon 2B), and the requirement that a judge conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary (Canon 2A).

Violation of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct is not a criminal offense.  Depending upon its severity, such a violation may be punished in a variety of ways, ranging from a private letter of caution issued by the Judicial Standards Commission to issuance of a public reprimand, censure, suspension, or removal from office by the North Carolina Supreme Court. G.S. 7A-376(a), (b). The supreme court may impose such sanctions only for willful misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to perform the judge’s duties, habitual intemperance, conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.  G.S. 7A-376(b).  The state supreme court’s removal of a judge from office on such grounds prevents the judge from receiving any retirement benefits and disqualifies her from holding judicial office in the future. G.S. 7A-376(b).

Before August 23, 2013, the Judicial Standards Commission, rather than the state supreme court, was authorized to issue public reprimands as well as private letters of caution.  The named judge could accept a public reprimand issued by the Commission or could reject it and demand that disciplinary proceedings be instituted before the supreme court.  If the judge accepted the reprimand, it was not confidential.  Indeed, public reprimands from past years are posted on the AOC’s website.  If the judge rejected the reprimand, the notice and statement of charges filed by the Commission, along with the answer and all other pleadings, were public.  Those provisions were amended by S.L. 2013-404. Now disciplinary hearings instituted by the Commission remain confidential unless and until the supreme court issues disciplinary action.

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