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Ethics Opinion

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JI-47

March 6, 1992

SYLLABUS

    A judge's spouse may serve on the campaign committee of a nonjudicial candidate and appear as a committee member on campaign letterhead.

    A judge may sit on the dais with the judge's spouse who is serving as co-chairperson of a political party social event.

    References: MCJC 1, 2A, 2C, 7A; JI-8, JI-11, JI-30, JI-36; CI-778; JTC A/O 25, 32, 60, 78, 98.

TEXT

A judge asks whether it would be ethically appropriate for the judge's spouse to serve on the election committee and appear on the campaign letterhead for a candidate for the office of sheriff, and whether the judge may sit on the dais with the spouse during a political party social event for which the spouse serves as co-chairperson.

MCJC 7A states:

    "(1) A judge or a candidate for judicial office should not:

      "(a) hold any office in a political party;

      "(b) make speeches on behalf of a political party or non-judicial candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for non-judicial office.

    "(2) A judge or candidate for judicial office may:

      "(a) attend political gatherings;

      "(b) speak to such gatherings on his own behalf or on behalf of other judicial candidates;

      "(c) contribute to a political party."

It is clear under MCJC 7A(1)(b) that a judge may not personally serve on the campaign committee for a political candidate. Since a judge must avoid "all impropriety and appearance of impropriety," MCJC 2A, and may not allow the prestige of the judicial office to be used for the personal or business interests of others, MCJC 2C, it is not simply the judge's conduct which must be restricted. Occasionally, conduct of members of the judge's family may be restricted in order to preserve the independence of the judiciary and confidence in the legal system, MCJC 1. See, e.g., CI-778, "[a judge] should encourage members of his family to adhere to the same standards of political conduct that apply to him"; MCR 2.003(B), where financial interest of a judge's spouse or minor child may mandate recusal of the judge. MCJC 2A is broad in its scope, and concerned with any activity that may impair a judge's perception in the public eye.

MCJC 7A(1)(b) prohibits a judge from endorsing a candidate for non-judicial office. While a sheriff's election is a nonjudicial office, a spouse serving as a campaign committee member and appearing on campaign letterhead does not constitute the judge's public endorsement of that candidate. See JI-11, where flyer of political party which lists candidates for judicial and nonjudicial office does not constitute the judge's endorsement. The judge is not engaging in any public campaigning for this particular sheriff. There are no activities such as passing out bumper stickers, handing out campaign literature, or giving speeches. See, JI-30. The name of the spouse, and not the judge, is simply appearing on stationery in his/her capacity as a committee member. This does not reflect any impropriety on the part of the judge, nor does it suggest the judge's public endorsement of a nonjudicial candidate. A spouse should not have to hide his/her identity from an election when it is proper for the judge to participate directly in the activities.

A judge's spouse is not prohibited from serving on the campaign committee of a nonjudicial candidate or appearing on the campaign committee letterhead.

With regard to sitting on the dais at a political party event, MCJC 7A(2)(a) specifically allows a judge to attend a political gathering, so long as the judge does not "publicly endorse" the nonjudicial candidate, nor hold a political office. The issue is whether the judge's presence at the front table of a political event constitutes a public endorsement in violation of MCJC 7A(1)(b).

JI-30 provides that a judge's mere attendance at a fund-raiser for a nonjudicial candidate does not constitute a public endorsement of the nonjudicial candidate. A judge's participation in other activities such as campaign contributions, JTC A/O 60, purchasing fund-raising tickets or signing nominating petitions, JTC A/O 25, are also not improper. See also, JI-36, a judge's advertisement in a political party's ad book is not ordinarily considered an endorsement. Where a judge is an honored guest, it is "likely that her person and office would be used to publicize the affair and to encourage public attendance furthering the partisan purposes of the sponsoring organization," JTC A/O 78; JTC A/O 98; JI-8. Even "hosting such an affair is not advisable so long as there is the possibility of any benefit accruing to any political organization," JTC A/O 32.

When considering the possibility of any benefit to the sponsoring political organization from the judge's attendance at a dinner as spouse of an organizer, it seems that the benefit is minimal. The judge is a guest like anyone else. The judge is not giving any speeches, nor is the judge responsible for organizing the dinner.

The judge is not overstepping boundaries by sitting on the dais with the judge's spouse at a political gathering.

 
     

 

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