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.
April 23, 1999
A judge may serve as moderator at a forum on criminal justice initiatives conducted by a political party provided (1) the judge does not comment on pending or impending cases in the court system; (2) the judge does not take a position on a legislative initiative that would preclude the judge from later presiding over a case or controversy involving the subject matter of the forum; and (3) the judge's participation in the forum does not interfere with the performance of the judge's judicial duties.
References: MCJC 1, 2, 4A and B, 5A and B, 7A(1); JI-36, JI-73, JI-115, A/O 23, A/O 63.
A judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals inquires about the propriety of a judge serving as a moderator in a forum on criminal justice initiatives pending in the state legislature.
A Michigan political party will sponsor the forum. Attendance at the forum will be largely, if not exclusively, political party members of the legislature, and state and local law enforcement officials. The event will be open to the public including the media. No fund raising or campaign activities will be conducted in connection with the forum.
The judge attendee will introduce the panelists and when appropriate ask questions to focus on the issues and clarify the discussion. The judge understands that the participants likely will engage in partisan references. However, the judge personally will avoid partisan reference and any other statements that would compromise the judge's ability to consider future cases or controversies arising out of initiatives discussed at the forum.
The Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct obligates all judges to avoid impropriety, and the appearance of impropriety, and at all times to observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judicial system is not compromised in a manner that erodes public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. MCJC 1 and 2.
MCJC permits, in fact encourages, judges to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice. MCJC 4A and B states:
"As a judicial officer and person specially learned in the law, a judge is in a unique position to contribute to the improvement of the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, including revision of substantive and procedural law and improvement of criminal and juvenile justice. To the extent that time permits, the judge is encouraged to do so, either independently or through a bar association, judicial conference, or other organization dedicated to the improvement of the law.
- A judge may speak, write, lecture, teach, and participate in other activities concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.
- A judge may appear at a public hearing before an executive or legislative body or official on matters concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, and may otherwise consult with such executive or legislative body or official on such matters."
Judges are not permitted participate in civic activities that reflect adversely on the judge's impartiality or that in any manner inhibit performance of judicial duties. Judges cannot engage in proceedings that are likely to come before the judge when sitting as a judicial officer. Judges cannot personally solicit funds for any educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic organization of permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for that purpose. MCJC 5A and B; JI-73, JI-115.
With regard to political conduct, judges cannot make speeches on behalf of a political party or publicly endorse a candidate for non-judicial office, but may attend political gatherings and speak at such gatherings on the judge's own behalf or for other judicial candidates. MCJC 7A(1); JI-36.
In the past, judges have been permitted to moderate a local debate concerning non-partisan issues. A/O 23. Judges may moderate a public affairs program to debate a controversial issue provided the judge-moderator abstains from public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court.
While judges are proscribed from participation in fund raising efforts on behalf of political parties and the endorsement of non-judicial candidates for election to partisan office, a judicial officer may serve as moderator at a forum on criminal justice initiatives conducted by a political party provided the judge does not comment on pending or impending cases in any court; the judge does not take a position on a legislative initiative that would preclude the judge from later presiding over a case or controversy involving the matter; and, the judge's participation does not interfere with the performance of the judge's judicial duties.