Legal Ethics

Judges can ask lawyers to lobby legislature for more court funding, state ethics panel says

California’s new Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions has issued its first formal opinion, the Los Angeles Times reports, and it gives the OK for judges to ask lawyers to lobby for sufficient court funding.

The committee, created in 2007, took longer than originally expected to begin turning out opinions because of lack of funding.

The opinion said that judges may ask lawyers to write op-ed pieces or otherwise engage in educational programs in the community to alert others to the need for full funding for the courts to ensure justice.

The committee carefully delineated various needs and requirements for such solicitations, especially concerning any appearances of impropriety, ranging from implications of favoritism in return for favors to coercion to gain help.

A judge “might avoid the appearance of favoritism by prefacing any request with the caveat that help is sought from anyone willing to volunteer, but without any expectations or benefits attached,” the opinion (PDF) says.

Just the same, the committee wrote, “The distinction between an ‘ask’ and a ‘lean’ may be subtle and highly fact-dependent.”

A judge soliciting lawyers’ help to lobby for court funding must, the committee says, consider the appearance of impropriety, the impression of special influence and the potential for disqualification and disclosure.

After considering whether judges might be seen as asking lawyers to engage in fundraising—in effect donating their valuable time instead of money, the committee wrote that instead it “encourages an individual’s participation in the political process,” which is in the interest of both the court and the lawyer because it helps in “maintaining effective access to justice.”

The committee was created in 2007 at the request of former Chief Justice Ronald M. George. Initially, it was to have four staff lawyers, but the economy soon began to lag and advertisements were placed for the hiring of only two, according to Supreme Court public information officer Cathal Conneely. But before those hires were made, budgetary concerns brought the number down to a single staff lawyer.

That likely slowed work of the committee, which also has issued three informal opinions.

“The recommendation was for four staff lawyers, and we ended up with one because of the fiscal crisis,” says Conneely.

The 12-member committee includes Superior Court and appellate court judges and a single commissioner (a bench officer). Though the members are appointed by the Supreme Court, it is an independent body, though in part for fiscal reasons, it does not have its own public information officer.

“They’re getting me on loan,” Conneely says.

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