Demonstrators protested the possible closure of eight Los Angeles County… (Los Angeles Times )
Should California judges be able to ask lawyers for help in lobbying Sacramento against cuts to the courts' budgets? Many judges and lawyers just assumed the answer was yes. Why wouldn't they be able to? Nobody is better acquainted with the trouble caused by court budget cuts than judges, who see firsthand the result of closing courthouses and restricting hours of access. But lawyers, especially litigators who do so much of their work in the courtroom, run a close second. Why shouldn't judges be able to ask influential attorneys at big firms (the same people who dole out a lot of political donations to political candidates) to give the governor or lawmakers a call to say "enough is enough"?
A state Supreme Court committee on judicial ethics sent a chill through the legal community last fall when it issued a draft opinion warning judges not to call meetings of specific lawyers to advocate against budget cuts in their own courts. Lawyers might too easily believe that they would get special treatment in their cases if they did as the judges asked, the committee said, and that they would face retaliation in the courtroom if they didn't.
Californians should appreciate the committee's instinct for avoiding even the slightest appearance of favoritism or coercion in the courtroom, but in the end they are better served by the final, revised opinion issued last week. Yes, the committee wrote, judges may meet with lawyers who practice in their courtrooms to ask for help cluing in the public and the Legislature to the effect of budget cuts and to ask for restorations, as long as the judges continue to weigh all the ethical factors that are already supposed to hold sway whenever they meet with lawyers. They have to make sure that nothing they say or ask suggests or implies coercion or favoritism.
The committee's opinion is written in broad terms. But clearly there are common-sense rules that should guide such discussions. A judge may be tempted to say to lawyers in the courtroom who are exasperated by continuing delays caused by staff layoffs and courthouse closures that if they don't like it, they should call the governor and demand more money for the courts.
But that scenario carries the hint, however slight, of a quid pro quo: Help me out with my budget and I'll help you out with your case schedule. The committee's opinion instead hits the right middle ground: Avoid the appearance of impropriety. Use some judgment. Use your position to advocate for the improvement and fair operation of the justice system, and not for the undermining of that very system by implying that a letter to the governor means better results for your clients.