Raising Funds for Civic, Charitable or Other Organizations

While incidents of improper charitable fund-raising by judges have ebbed and flowed over the years, they continue to occur.  Therefore, from time to time, the Commission finds it necessary to remind judges of the strict limitations on their participation in fund-raising activities for civic, charitable or other worthy organizations.  See Section 100.4(C)(3)(b) of the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct.

For example, a judge “may assist such an organization in planning fund-raising and may participate in the management and investment of the organization’s funds, but shall not personally participate in the solicitation of funds or other fund-raising activities.” Also, the judge “shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising or membership solicitation….”

With limited exceptions, a judge may attend an organization’s fund-raising events but “may not be a speaker or the guest of honor” at such events. The exceptions are that a judge may be a speaker or guest of honor at a function held by a bar association, law school or court employee organization. A judge may also accept “at another organization’s fund-raising event an unadvertised award ancillary to such event.”

Notwithstanding the fact that a judge may attend a law school or bar association fund-raising event, the judge is still prohibited from personally participating in the solicitation of funds or other fund-raising activities associated with the event. Some judges appear unaware of this limitation or the fact that there is no exception in the Rules permitting one judge to solicit other judges, regardless of whether the soliciting or solicited judges are of equal rank. Indeed, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics has specifically stated that the Rules prohibit a judge from soliciting other judges for contributions to charitable causes, and prohibit a judge from personally participating in the solicitation of funds or other fund-raising activities, even in connection with a bar association event at which the judge may accept an award and speak. Advisory Opinions 96-83 and 98-38.

With regard to events held by other civic or charitable organizations, the Commission has often come across situations in which an organization mails a solicitation that lists a judge as a “host” or a “sponsor” without having checked first with the judge, who may be a member of the organization or who may have made a permissible contribution without intending it to be used as a solicitation on a future fund-raising appeal. The leaders of a charitable organization are not likely to know the judicial ethics rules or be acquainted with the particular constraints on the use of a judge’s name in fund-raising. While an unauthorized use of the judge’s name in that regard would not likely result in discipline without aggravating circumstances, the Commission informally advises judges in such situations to remind the organization’s leaders of the applicable rules. The Commission takes this opportunity to suggest that all judges who join a charitable organization advise its leaders upon joining that they not use the judge’s name in fund-raising appeals.

The Commission has also come across situations in which the judge who accepts a speaking invitation claims later not to have realized the event was a fund-raiser. The Commission has advised such judges, usually in letters of dismissal and caution, that they are obliged to make inquiries about the nature of the event before accepting an invitation to speak. A simple question or two may be all that is necessary to determine whether the event is a fund-raiser. For example, the judge should inquire about the price of tickets to the event, though further inquiry may be necessary.  An organization may, for example, break even on the ticket price but raise money through ads in a souvenir journal, a raffle, a silent auction or other means.

The Commission has also reminded judges that the prohibition on being a speaker at a fund-raising event is not limited to giving a keynote or featured speech. A judge may not be the emcee or introduce the keynote speaker or similarly perform another ancillary speaking role, such as introducing other judges in the audience.

Where there is any doubt about the propriety of participating, the judge should consult with the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, either by researching its published opinions or requesting a new one specific to the situation: http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/acje/.

From the 2015 Annual Report, pages 20-21