NOTE: Various references in this ethics opinion to portions of the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct are no longer accurate due to amendments effective August 1, 2013. Click here to review language added to (which is underlined) and language stricken from (which is indicated by strikethrough) Canons 2, 4, 5, and 7.
November 7, 1997
A judge may make a financial contribution to a group supporting a bond issue to build a new school in the school district in which the judge resides. The judge may also allow a yard sign to be placed in the judge’s yard, indicating support for the bond issue.
References: MCJC 4, 5B, 7A; C-237; CI-641.
A sitting judge resides in a school district which recently held a bond election to build a new school. The judge and his spouse supported the bond proposal. They were asked to make a financial contribution to a group supporting the bond proposal and to place a yard sign in their front yard. The judge asks whether either of these activities would be prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct?
MCJC 5B directly addresses a judge's participation in civic and charitable activities as follows:
"B. Civic and Charitable Activities: A judge may participate in civic and charitable activities that do not reflect adversely upon the judge’s impartiality or interfere with the performance of judicial duties. A judge may serve as an officer, director, trustee, or non-legal advisor of a bona fide educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic organization, subject to the following limitations:
"(1) A judge should not serve if it is likely that the organization will be engaged in proceedings that would ordinarily come before the judge or will be regularly engaged in adversary proceedings in any court.
"(2) A judge should not individually solicit funds for any educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic organization, or use or permit the use of the office for that purpose, but may be listed as an officer, director, or trustee of such an organization. A judge may, however, join a general appeal on behalf of an educational, religious, charitable, or fraternal organization, or speak on behalf of such organization."
MCJC 5B does allow a judge's participation in appeals on behalf of educational, religious, fraternal, or civic/charitable organizations and the judge may be listed in promotional materials as a participant in those activities, as long as the judge does not actively solicit funds. CI-641. The two activities that this judge wishes to do, contribute money and put a sign in the yard, appear to fall within the allowable range of activities of MCJC 5B.
MCJC 7A addresses judge's involvement in political activity which states:
"A. Political Conduct in General:
"(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 nonjudicial candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for nonjudicial office.
"(2) A judge or candidate for judicial office may:
"(a) attend political gatherings;
"(b) speak to such gatherings on the judge's own behalf or on the behalf of other judicial candidates;
"(c) contribute to a political party."
Since contributions to a political party are specifically allowed by MCJC 7A(2)(c) and the unofficial committee comment to MCJC 7A (1) indicates that campaign contributions to a nonjudicial candidate are not improper endorsements, it would appear that the contribution to the group supporting the bond issue is not improper under MCJC 7A. The unofficial committee comment to MCJC 7(A)(2) indicates that behind the scenes activities for nonjudicial candidates are permitted, such as envelope stuffing and building yard signs, but activities of a public nature are prohibited, such as displaying bumper stickers and soliciting votes. Displaying yard signs for a nonjudicial candidate would be prohibited by MCJC 7A but the Canon is silent as to other types of elections, such as school bond elections.
Judges and candidates for judicial office may express an opinion on a ballot proposal, C-237. The rationale for this opinion comes from MCJC 4, which encourages judges to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice. C-237 does not indicate that the expression of an opinion on a ballot proposal is improper political activity prohibited by MCJC 7A. By analogy, endorsement of a school bond issue by the putting of a yard sign in the judge's yard, would not be improper political activity prohibited by MCJC 7A.
Canons 5 and 7 of the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct do not proscribe the two questioned activities, namely the making of a contribution to a group supporting a local school bond election, and the placing of a yard sign supporting the bond proposal, in the judge's yard.
In JI-46, this Committee opined that a judge could only publicly support a portion of a special millage which dealt with matters affecting the legal system and the administration of justice. Those parts of JI-46 which are inconsistent with this opinion are overruled.