May judge attend law firm celebration with free food and drinks? Not in this state, draft opinion says

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A draft ethics opinion says California judges should not attend law office celebrations with free food and drinks.

The California Supreme Court’s Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions released the draft opinion for comments that are due by July 10, Bloomberg Law reports.

The draft was released in response to a question by a judge who asked whether he could accept an invitation to attend a firm’s 50th anniversary celebration.

The draft opinion follows revelations that now-disbarred trial lawyer Tom Girardi escaped discipline after hosting parties and events attended by employees of the State Bar of California. His “lavish” parties were also attended by judges, prosecutors and other attorneys, according to a report by the California bar.

The proposed ethics opinion says attending a firm’s celebration could raise questions about the judge’s impartiality in cases involving the firm, could lend prestige to advance the firm’s interests, and could violate the ban on accepting some gifts.

Judges can accept gifts of little value in connection with “ordinary social hospitality.” But firms’ celebrations don’t qualify for the exception because their events generally have a business purpose, according to the draft opinion.

There could be some situations in which judges could attend a firm’s function. One example would be a celebration of a firm with which the judge had a prior relationship that would warrant disqualification. Such situations would include the opening of an adult child’s legal practice or a firm’s holiday party where the judge’s spouse works.

“Even in such cases,” the draft opinion says, “judicial officers are advised to ensure that the law firm does not use the judicial officer’s position to improperly lend prestige to the law firm, for example, by introducing the judicial officer by title as a special guest in the presence of clients.”

A footnote to the ethics opinion says judges may be able to attend bar association or legal education events sponsored by firms.

“In recent years,” the footnote says, “law firms have increasingly hosted law student mixers and events to promote diversity in the legal profession. When deciding whether to attend such events, judicial officers are advised to consider whether the event appears to promote a particular law firm or whether it is geared to improvement of the law and legal system in general.”

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