Saturday, June 5, 2010

Judges and the Code of Judicial Conduct - The Prestige of Office

By John DiMotto
There is no doubt that there is "prestige" that attends the judicial office. Whether it is in or outside of the courtroom, most people refer to a judge by his/her title. In the courtroom, when a judge enters everyone rises , even before the bailiff announces the presence of the judge. When addressing the court, staff, lawyers and parties will start out by saying "Your Honor" or "Judge." Outside of the courtroom, when a judge walks into a gathering, people usually address the judge with "hello, judge, how are you today" or words to that effect. When I walk into a restaurant where I have dined in the past, I am usually greeted with "Good evening, Judge, nice to see you again."
Quite frankly, even after 20 years as a judge, I am sometimes uncomfortable by this salutation when it is used outside the courtroom. I know the people are showing me respect that comes with my profession, but I am really no different a person than they are. I "put my shirt on one arm at a time" just like they do. I eat, drink, sleep, etc. no different than they do. If it is in a private setting and people call me judge, I oftentimes tell them my parents gave me the name "John" and I like it and it is OK for them to use my name since we are not in the courtroom.
While the title "judge" is part of the prestige of the office, a judge may not use his/her position to advance his/her or other's private interests. SCR Chapter 60 specifically addresses the "prestige of the office" issue head on.
SCR 60.03(1) states:
"A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
This rule governs conduct both on and off the bench. We are judges 24/7. It encompasses not just behavior but the appearance given by the behavior. In essence, judges must avoid not just inappropriate conduct but even the appearance of impropriety. A common sense "rule of thumb" that a judge can apply in every circumstance is "how would this look if it appeared on the front page of the local newspaper or was the lead story on the 10:00 news."
SCR 60.03(2) states:
A judge may not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge's judicial conduct or judgment. A judge may not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interest of the judge or of others or convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. A judge may not testify voluntarily as a character witness.
This rule is designed so that the judicial office is not denigrated. A judge should not be given consideration because he/she is a judge. If this rule did not exist, people might bend over backwards to do things for a judge in order to get something in return -- a favorable ruling on a motion, a favorable verdict at the end of a court trial, etc. Likewise, judges cannot seek an advantage in a matter because he/she is a judge. For example, a judge cannot use his/her judicial letterhead for conducting a judge's personal business. For example, a judge cannot allude to his/her judgeship to seek preferential treatment if stopped for a traffic violation or when making a purchase such as a car, etc.
SCR 60.03(3) states:
A judge may not hold membership in any organization that practices invidious discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or national origin.
This rule is obvious. How could any litigant believe a judge will be fair is the judge practices discrimination.
In addition to the rules, there Advisory Opinions can be sought to aid judges in making decisions.
The bottom line is this:
1) The judicial office comes great prestige.
2) A judge cannot use that prestige for his/her or another person's/entity's advantage.

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