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Judges and commissioners should generally not accept invitations from law firms to celebrations, the Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions said Aug. 29.

Doing so could violate multiple canons in the Code of Judicial Ethics, including prohibitions against suggesting bias, lending judicial prestige and accepting gifts, the opinion said.

This general rule has some exemptions. The committee said a judge may attend a law firm celebration if they had a preexisting relationship with the firm.

The Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions is a 12-member advisory committee of judicial officers from both appellate and trial courts. They issue advisory opinions on proper judicial conduct.

Judges must find a careful balance between complying with their ethical obligations and ensuring that they do not become completely isolated from the communities that they serve.

This will include weighing the need for social engagement against the utmost importance of maintaining the integrity, impartiality, and independence of the judiciary,” said CJEO member and subcommittee chair Judge Erica Yew in a press release.

The opinion specifically says that judges may attend bar-related functions with complimentary food and beverages even if they are underwritten by law firms. 

Other celebrations, including retirement parties or a memorial service for well-known members of the legal community, are also permissible. That permission was the only major change between the draft opinion and the formal opinion.

Six people commented on the draft opinion.

San Joaquin Superior Judge Barbara Kronlund and Contra Costa Superior Judge Terri Mockley submitted a joint comment in disfavor of the opinion. They said the draft opinion conflicts with existing canon, assumes that all firm celebrations are done to impress clients. Their comment also came to a different conclusion than the draft opinion regarding the question whether a judge should attend a firm’s 50th-anniversary party.

The opinion said judges generally should not attend these celebrations. Kronlund said that the 50th anniversary is a once-in-a-lifetime event attended by many people, and would be considered ethical to attend under other judicial canons.

Kronlund said the opinion conflicts with other advice that judges can attend Inns of Court, teach civics education with lawyers, attend Law Day or attend Bar Association meetings. She also wrote that free food and drinks are considered hospitality, not a gift as described by the ruling.

Alameda Superior Judge Karin Schwartz wrote that some of the language of the draft opinion, which was not changed in the final opinion, could be overbroad, and could chill proper conduct.

San Francisco attorney Adrian Driscoll wrote that the rule harms the legal profession by reducing civil meetings and sending the wrong message to the public.

Read comments here.

Read the opinion here.


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