Dear Ms. Meiring,
With the holiday season approaching, Charity Y would like to know whether it is ethically permissible for our local judge to dress up like Santa Claus and pass out donated presents to the less fortunate kids in the community at our annual holiday party.
Virginia, Director of Charity Y
Ah, the holidays – ‘tis the season for charitable giving and activities. As prominent members of the local community, judges often are asked to participate at charitable events.
However, the Code of Judicial Conduct places some limits on a judge’s ability to participate in certain charitable activities, especially if an event serves a fund-raising purpose. The ethical standards limiting such participation are to ensure that the prestige of judicial office is not used to advance the private interests of others (even if for a worthy cause) and to maintain public confidence in the independence, impartiality, and integrity of the judiciary and judicial decision-making.
Under Rule 3.7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct a judge MAY:
- Assist an organization in the planning of fund-raising events
- Volunteer services or goods to an organization, even at fund-raising events
- Participate in the management and investment of the organization’s funds
- Attend events of the organization, including fund-raising events
- Speak at events of the organization that do not have a fund-raising aspect associated with them
- Solicit donations for the organization but only from family members or from judges over whom the requesting judge does not exercise supervisory or appellate authority.
There are caveats to these permissive activities. For instance, a judge may volunteer services or goods for a fundraiser but only if the judge’s title is not used to promote the fundraiser or to induce others to bid on items.
For example, a judge could donate his one-of-a-kind autographed Mickey Mantle baseball for a silent auction, but the auction sheet cannot contain the notation “donated by Judge X.” Likewise, a judge cannot donate as a service for the auction the opportunity to “spend the day with the judge” or “have lunch with the judge.” Activities such as judges serving in dunking-booth or pie-throwing fundraisers also can be problematic (as some litigants may be induced to spend large sums for an opportunity to temporarily “get the best” of a judge).
As for appearing or speaking at events for a charitable organization, a judge may do so, but the judge may not be a featured speaker or guest of honor if the event serves a fund-raising purpose.
In some states, advisory committees have reasoned that acting as the emcee or serving as a celebrity judge of a competition at a fundraiser is a “guest of honor” role.
So, Virginia, there are several questions that your local judge will have to ask before he can accept your invitation to donate his time to be Santa Claus.
Will there be fund-raising at your event? If so, how is the event being promoted? Will it be advertised who is playing the role of Santa Claus? If so, then the judge will probably have to decline since the Santa Claus role would naturally have to be considered a guest of honor role.
What type of court does the judge preside over and what is your organization’s primary purpose? If the judge has juvenile jurisdiction and the kids who Santa will give presents to potentially have CHINS (child-in-need-of services) cases pending, then the judge likely will have to decline your invitation.
But if your organization simply is celebrating the end of a good year with a holiday party (with no fundraising) aimed at benefitting local youth, and the judge is not a juvenile court judge…..then yes, Virginia, judges can be Santa Claus.