Using a Signature Stamp: When and How
Judges have to sign thousands of documents, sometimes hundreds of times each day. It is only reasonable that judges must find ways to ease this burden by seeking help from staff. Which leads to the question: may a judge authorize another individual to sign documents on behalf of the judge via use of a signature stamp or other means? The short answer is yes, but it is not the complete answer. While a judge may authorize another person to affix his signature to documents, this does not relieve the judge of the duty to exercise judicial discretion in determining what documents should be signed.
“. . . [A] signing or subscribing may legally be done by another for the party to such instrument, if done at his request, and . . . it may be done with pen and ink, pencil, stamp, stencil, typewriter or type . . . .” Ashwell v. Miller, (1913), 54 Ind.App. 381, 103 N.E. 37 (citations omitted) The Indiana Supreme Court has held that a rubber stamp signature is the equivalent of a signature made in pen and ink. Zollner v. State, (1920), 189 Ind. 114, 126 N.E. 1. “The signature, however affixed, is clothed with a presumption that the certifying officer stamped it as his signature or that it was stamped with his authority, . . .” Thomas v. State, 562 N.E.2d 43, 46 (Ind. App. 1990), citing James v. State ex rel. Com’r of Motor Vehicles (1985), Ind.App., 475 N.E.2d 1164, 1166.
However, in a scenario where the clerk of court or her employees, with the knowledge of the judge, affixed the judge’s signature to protective orders with a signature stamp before the judge reviewed the petitions, the Supreme Court found such practice violated several provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct. In the Matter of Funke, 757 N.E.2d 1013 (Ind. 2001).
This process involves two distinct steps:
- the exercise of judicial discretion by the judge in making a decision and determining that a document should be signed, and
- the actual affixing of the signature to the document, which the judge can delegate to another individual.
For example, a judge may authorize an individual to affix the judge’s signature to an order waiving filing fees, but only after the judge has made the determination that such an order is appropriate. A judge may not delegate his judicial discretion in granting or denying such an order to an individual who is not a judicial officer. Similarly, when presented with a motion for proceedings supplemental, after the judge determines that the motion meets the requirements of Ind. Trial Rule 69(E)(1) through (4), the judge may authorize another individual to affix his signature to the order requiring the defendant to appear and the garnishee defendant to answer interrogatories.
For another example, a judge could provide by local rule that he has decided to grant joint requests for continuances of discovery deadlines when the request are for 30 days or less and provide in the local rule that the court reporter is authorized to affix his signature to such orders. On the other hand, a judge should never delegate the authority to review and grant default judgments by stamping the judges’ signature on orders of default judgment. The decision to grant default is a matter of judicial discretion and can only be made by the judge upon presentation of an affidavit or other proof. However, if the court has actually reviewed a motion for default, examined the tendered documents, and made a decision to grant or not to grant, the judge could direct staff to affix the signature to orders, which he has determined reflect his decision.
We suggest that the best practice is for the judge to have a local rule, spelling out who has authority to use the judges’ signature stamp and under what specific circumstances. Making this information easily available to all staff and court users protects the judge from unauthorized use of his signature stamp and assures court users that documents containing the judge’s stamped signature are in fact legitimate.