Sep. 19, 2023
I don’t want to spoil the party, but . . .
If judges were to avoid all bar association events that were sponsored by law firms, their absence would adversely affect the goal of such events to promote collegiality and understanding between judges and lawyers and to improve the law, the legal system or administration of justice.
The Beatles popularized “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” almost 60 years ago, but the song comes to mind when reading the recent ethics opinion advising judges not to attend a law firm’s 50th anniversary celebration party. (California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions (CJEO) Formal Opinion 2023-024, posted Aug. 29, 2023.) The opinion thoroughly addresses the many ethical reasons attendance would be problematic, including judicial prohibitions against 1) suggesting bias or favoritism to a law firm; 2) lending judicial prestige to advance business interests; and 3) acceptance of gifts from lawyers. (See California Code of Judicial Ethics Canons 2, 2A, 2B, 4D(6).) The opinion is worth reading by judges and lawyers to understand why these concerns arise and where exceptions may apply, such as when a judge’s spouse is a member of the firm, or the event is not business oriented.
Importantly, the opinion should not be viewed as spoiling all judicial-lawyer interactions at parties or gatherings. Judges are encouraged by the judicial canons to avoid becoming isolated from their community. Interactions between the bench and bar are important in fostering education, understanding, respect, and collegiality. Although many bar association or legal education events are sponsored by law firms who underwrite the costs, the CJEO opinion observes that judges are allowed to attend these events. In fact, a specific exception to the gift prohibition permitting attendance is spelled out in the judicial canons. (Canon 4D(6)(d).) Judges are expected to maintain relationships with the bar and attending such events does not cast doubt on impartiality.
During my 20 plus years on the bench, I served on numerous judicial ethics committees. My colleagues would often ask me whether they could attend a bar dinner or reception that was sponsored by a law firm, particularly when the costs of food and drink were underwritten by the firm. To the extent the sponsorship is a gift, it is a gift or donation from the firm to the bar association, not to the judge. Attendance by the judge does not lend prestige to the firm or suggest favoritism. If judges were to avoid all bar association events that were sponsored by law firms, their absence would adversely affect the goal of such events to promote collegiality and understanding between judges and lawyers and to improve the law, the legal system or administration of justice. Unless other unusual factors are at play, the answer is yes, you may attend.
In the Beatles’ song, John Lennon laments that he will leave the party so that he doesn’t spoil it with his disappointment. But judges don’t need to leave (or avoid) the bar party. No one should be disappointed.