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State judicial ethics panel issues its first formal opinion

Decision allows judges to ask lawyers to lobby for funding for the courts, but with limits. Committee members were appointed by the state Supreme Court.

April 08, 2013|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • A Los Angeles County court bailiff stands in an empty hallway in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse.
A Los Angeles County court bailiff stands in an empty hallway in the downtown… (Spencer Weiner, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — A new California judicial ethics committee has issued its first formal opinion, deciding that judges may solicit attorneys to lobby for funding for the courts.

The Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions, responding to a request from an undisclosed person, said Friday that judges may ask lawyers to write op-ed pieces and lobby the community and the Legislature about court budget cuts as long as the request is not coercive.

"In presenting information and requesting assistance, a judge may not hint of retribution or bias against an attorney or firm for not acquiescing in the request or otherwise place pressure on an attorney to assist," the written opinion said.

A judge's request also should not appear to give an attorney any influence over the judge or create an appearance of a conflict of interest, the committee said.

"One way a judge might avoid the appearance of favoritism is by prefacing any request with the caveat that help is sought from anyone willing to volunteer, but without any expectations or benefits attached," the committee wrote.

During the state's budget crisis, leaders of the bar have worked alongside judges in decrying a loss of funding for the courts and lobbying the Legislature.

The 12-member ethics committee, the brainchild of former Chief Justice Ronald M. George, was appointed by the California Supreme Court but acts independently of all agencies. Its advisory opinions are published at JudicialEthicsOpinions.ca.gov.

Most committee members are appeals court justices or judges. They respond to questions about ethics from judges and members of the public.

Although created years ago, the committee was slow to start because of a lack of funding. Its work complements that of the California Judges Assn., which operates a hotline for ethics questions for judges only.

Appeals Court Justice Ronald B. Robie, head of the committee, told reporters that judges should always consider whether their actions might create an appearance of impropriety.

"If you are in the middle of a trial with somebody, I think it is prudent not to be dealing with them," Robie said during a news conference.

The committee has already issued some informal opinions, including one that advised a judge against hiring his wife as a research attorney.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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