Judicial Ethics—Frequently Asked Questions

General Information

General Information


May a judge use their judicial office as a donation to a charity fundraiser?

No. A judge should not use the prestige of a judicial office for fundraising purposes, MCJC 2(C) and 4(D). Further, a judge must avoid the appearance of impropriety, MCJC 2(A). For example, a judge asked whether they may donate a “lunch with the judge” and a judge-guided tour of the courthouse to a charity fundraiser. This would not be ethical as it would violate MCJC 2 and MCJC 4. Lawyers or parties who may come before the judge will believe they have an incentive to bid on the items to attempt to curry favor with the judge. The public may also have this perception if a lawyer or a party is the highest bidder for either item.

 

May a judge correct misinformation to the media?

Yes. A judge may make a public statement on behalf of educational, religious, fraternal, or civil/charitable organizations provided that the judge does not unduly rely on their judicial position to add credibility to the judge’s statements; does not opine on matters that may come before them as a judge; and otherwise, does not say something to bring the judiciary into disrepute. For example, a judge who is a member of a community’s education task force where misinformation about the work of the task force has been spread may counter the misinformation to the media as long as the judge does not use their position to lend credibility to their statements. See MCJC 5(B), JI-116, and Republican Party v White, 536 US 765 (2002).

 

May a judge be paid for a recreational activity not connected with the judicial position?

Yes. A judge may be paid for a recreational activity (i.e., professional acting) if the activity does not implicate or compromise the judicial position and the income is reported to the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). A judge may participate in an be compensated for some extra judicial activities, MCJC 4 and 6. If the recreational activity does not involve or compromise the judicial position, it is an acceptable avocation. JI-137.

 

May a judge attend a court hearing to support a relative?

Yes. The judge may attend a court hearing if they are merely a spectator. The judge may not invoke their position in any way. Simply being present at the relative’s sentencing does not create an appearance of impropriety.

 

May a family law referee hear family law cases on which they had worked on as a lawyer prior to becoming a referee?

No. The passage of time does not affect MCR 2.003(C)(1)(d), which forever precludes a judge [or a quasi-judicial officer] from hearing any cases they once handled or worked on as a lawyer.

 

Must a judge disclose to the parties their routine legal relationships with lawyers, financial, and otherwise, that has since terminated?

BEST PRACTICE: Disclosure of all relationships less than five years old and analyze relationships over five years to determine if there is cause to believe that there is a basis for disqualification under MCR 2.003. MCJC 3.

There is no clear line between relationships that are so old they require no disclosure and those that are recent enough to require disclosure. Canon 3(C) requires a judge to disclose relationships whenever there is cause to believe that a basis for disqualification may exist under MCR 2.003. MCR 2.003 states that a judge is disqualified where a lawyer was the judge’s partner within the preceding two years. It also requires a judge to be disqualified whenever there is an appearance of impropriety. The rule is silent about the duty of disclosure, and about the impact of relationships ending more than two years in the past.

 

May a judge model for a local company where the advertisement will include the honorific title, but not the judicial robe and for payment, the company contributes to a charity of the judge’s choosing?

No. The photo will appear in a marketing device for a local company and the judge is included due to their judicial status, which status will be known to the community whether their position is mentioned. As such, the judge is using the prestige of their office to further the business interest of the company in violation of MCJC 2(C). For example, a judge may be asked to model for a local jewelry company. The advertisement would include “his/her honor” or “judge” but would not include the judge wearing their judicial robe. In exchange, the jeweler would contribute $1,000 to a charity of the judge’s choice (note, the judge is not soliciting for the charity), and the charity would be identified in connection with the photograph. The jewelry company regularly publishes locally prominent people modeling jewelry from the jeweler. Even though the jeweler regularly uses locally prominent people within its advertisements, a judge would not be able to be a part of this marketing campaign. This type of scenario and similar scenarios like this would violate MCJC 2(C) because the judge is using the prestige of their office and their judicial position within the local community to further the business interest of the jewelry company.

 

May a judge give an interview about a case that is complete that the judge handled as a prosecutor or a defense attorney prior to taking the bench?

There is no inherent obstacle in doing the interview, so long as the judge is mindful of the dignity and responsibilities of their current position as they give the interview. MCJC 4(B).

 

May a judge give an interview about a case the judge has presided over while an appeal is pending? What if the case has gone through all appeals?

No. A judge should not speak or comment on the specifics of a case or anything related to the case while the case is within the appeal timeframes or in the appeal stages. By speaking or commenting on a case a judge has presided over during the appeal stage, those comments may greatly affect the party’s fundamental due process rights especially if the case is remanded to the court or other cases with similar facts may come before the judge. It is improper for a judge to comment on a case or on related facts that is making its way through the judiciary system. MCJC 3(A).

However, if the case has gone through the appeal process and no further appeals are available to the party per the court rules or statutes of the state, a judge may speak as it relates to a specific case as long as such activity does not detract from the dignity of the office or interfere with the performance of judicial duties. MCJC 4(B).

 

May a former judge represent a party in a case over which the judge presided while in office if the parties agree?

Yes. The Rules of Professional Conduct allow a former judge to handle a case over which the judge presided, so long as all parties are informed and agree. MRPC 1.12(a).

 

May a judge give legal advice to a pro per party on a matter over which the judge does not preside?

Maybe. A judge cannot practice law for compensation, MCJC Canon 4(H). Therefore, the operative question is whether the sitting judge is being compensated for any advice they gave.

 

May a judicial officer who oversees abuse and neglect matters be a foster parent?

Pursuant to MCJC 2, judicial officers must avoid the appearance of impropriety. Judges should keep in mind that DHHS staff, parents’ attorneys, and lawyer guardian ad litems involved in the foster care placement may also appear in unrelated abuse and neglect cases in the same county or in a different county. For respondent parents, the fact that the judicial officer presiding over their case is a foster parent could create the appearance that other participants have an unfair advantage in the proceeding, contrary to Canon 2(C). Such a perception would require disqualification of the judicial officer under Canon 3(C).

Further, Canon 4(E) provides that a judge should refrain from financial dealings that tend to reflect adversely on impartiality. While the foster care stipend paid to foster parents is minimal, it is a financial activity parties could perceive as an influence on the impartiality of the judicial officer.

 

May a judge continue to maintain a trust account for up to 7 years after being elected to the bench if they are unable to find the client to return the unclaimed funds under the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act?

No. MCJC 7(C) provides that a judge has six months, or until June 30 following the election to resign from organizations and activities and divest interests that do not qualify under Canon 4. In addition to MCJC 7(C), an important reason to close out the trust account is that so long as the account is open, the judge is not able to accurately reflect their status to the State Bar’s questions regarding IOLTAs when renewing their license to practice law. The judge has the following options in handling the client funds:

  • Best Practice: Transfer the case to another attorney through the judge’s succession plan to hold the money in that attorney’s trust account and contact the client at their last known location notifying them of the transfer of their case and the location of their unclaimed funds. That attorney will then continue to make reasonable attempts to contact the client for a maximum period of seven years. If unclaimed after seven years, the funds should be handled as required by the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.
  • Best Practice: Engage the services of another attorney to hold the money in that attorney’s trust account on behalf of the judge. The judge would then become the “client” for the purpose of having the attorney hold funds for which the judge is responsible to their former client(s). If unclaimed after seven years, the judge may then request the attorney to transfer the funds as required by the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.
  • If the amount of money is significant enough, the judge can hire an attorney to file a petition for conservatorship with a probate judge, under which the conservator will continue the efforts to find the owner(s) of the money, file reports with the court, and then close the conservatorship once the owners are found and the funds are returned or after seven years if the owners cannot be found. If the owners are not found after seven years, the conservator should handle the funds as required by the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.
  • If the amount of money is not significant, the trust account may be closed, open a regular account, and transfer the funds to a regular account, where it can remain or be maintained for seven years if necessary. If unclaimed after seven years, the funds should be handled as required by the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.

 

Can a judge preside over a case if one of the witnesses is related to the judge?

Maybe. It depends on the degree of relationship to determine whether the judge can preside. Ethics opinion J-6 quotes MCR 2.003(B)(6), which states

(6) The judge or the judge’s spouse, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse of such a person:

(a) is a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director or trustee of a party;
(b) is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;
(c) is known by the judge to have a more that de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding;
(d) is to the judge’s knowledge likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.

If there is a question as to the validity of the witness or the reasoning as to why the witness is being called, the judge should hold a hearing on the record and receive an offer of proof as to whether the witness is material to the case. If the degree of relationship with the witness is within the third degree of relationship to the judge or the judge’s spouse, MCR 2.003(B)(6)(d) requires recusal by the presiding judge. If the judge has had any discussions regarding the case with the proposed witnesses, the judge should recuse themself from presiding over the case.


Last updated: March 2021

These FAQs are neither legal advice nor an ethics opinion, and are not a substitute for your obligation to review and adhere to the requirements of the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct (MCJC), ethics opinions, statutes, court rules, and/or case law.