Sometimes friends, family, neighbors, fellow church or synagogue members, and parents we know from school ask my colleagues and me to do something that the law forbids us from doing. Can you obtain auction items for a charity? Can you host a party to help me sell this jewelry? Can you work door-to-door for my favorite candidate for the school board? Can you “like” my business on Facebook? So many times, people believe that we are being difficult or lazy by refusing to assist our community and friends. In this article, I will attempt to explain some of the ethical restraints placed on judges so that you will understand why judges say, “I am prohibited from doing that.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has issued ethical rules for all judges. The reason behind these rules is that we don’t want it to ever appear that judges may be influenced in decision-making by outside activities or use their authority or title to promote profit or non-profit activities. For example, if I baked a pie for a church bake sale, set out a sign next to it saying, “Baked by Judge Novak,” and then stood next to my pie urging others to purchase a slice, it would be inappropriate under the ethical rules. Why? Because, someone may buy the pie thinking that I may rule in his or her favor. It may sound silly, thinking a judge may actually rule for the price of a piece of apple pie, but the rules are there to prevent even the appearance of impropriety.
Commonly, judges are asked about a case pending before them, especially a case in the news. I remember a time that one of my colleagues heard a contract case involving basketball star Michael Jordan. The courtroom was packed. But, since not everyone can take off work to witness the proceedings, many people wanted to ask the judge questions. Similarly, when a judge gives a sentence that the public deems either too light or too harsh, the public wants to ask the judge about it. A judge is limited to what appears in the official transcripts of the case and statements in written court orders and opinions.
But, judges can and do talk about the administrative procedures of the court. Members of the Illinois Judges Association commonly talk to elementary and high school students about the legal ramifications of drinking and using drugs through its 7 Reasons to Leave the Party presentations and discuss Fourth Amendment search and seizure rules when presenting its Bringing the Courtroom to the Classroom programs. Simply put, judges cannot go on TV, speak to reporters, or talk at private or public gatherings about anything that is outside the public record in an actual case or one that the judge is likely to hear.
Judges can’t lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of others. That’s why judges can’t be quoted in advertising saying, “Bob’s is the place to buy your next car.” This is true even if Bob is the judge’s brother. And, unless the judge is a candidate for office, the judge can’t campaign for other candidates or serve as an election judge. Even when the judge is a candidate for office, the judge still can’t tell you what he or she will rule in a particular case.
Judges can’t personally raise funds. This is true even if the judge is a candidate for office and when the judge is on the board of a bar association. And, judges have to be careful in getting involved in any organization that is regularly involved in proceedings before that judge.
Judges can’t practice law. This might be frustrating to many cousins, neighbors, and former clients of judges. Although as lawyers we could give some legal advice at parties, we cannot do so any longer. If you have a legal problem, the best person to turn to is a practicing lawyer.
Finally, many judges won’t use social media such as Facebook or Twitter due to the constant need to adjust and confirm their privacy settings. Judges are cautious about becoming Facebook friends with others as their “Facebook friend” may appear in front of them, creating an appearance of impropriety. In some states, judges are prohibited from having Facebook accounts.
Social media and the Internet have changed the world, including the court system. Just recently, the Illinois Supreme Court allowed for e-filing of court documents and cameras in courtrooms. And the Circuit Court of Cook County, where I serve, now has a Twitter account for announcements. I am sure this area of ethics will continue to evolve. What must never change, however, is the impartiality and neutrality of our judges.
Rita M. Novak is President of the Illinois Judges Association and serves as associate judge in Circuit Court of Cook County.