California judges should refrain from attending law firm celebrations at the firm’s offices with complimentary food and beverages under a draft ethics advisory out for comment.
The California Supreme Court’s Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions’ draft opinion follows a request on whether a judicial officer could attend a 50th anniversary celebration.
“A judicial officer’s presence at such an event may suggest that the judicial officer has a special relationship with the law firm, which may undermine the impartiality of the judiciary or convey the impression that the law firm is in a position to influence the judicial officer’s judicial decisions,” the draft said.
“In addition, the judicial officer’s attendance at such an event may improperly lend judicial prestige to advance the law firm’s interests by suggesting that the law firm is favored or endorsed by the judiciary,” the draft said. “Finally, because law firm celebrations are primarily for the purpose of business development, the complimentary food and beverages served at such events are gifts for which no exception to the general prohibition against accepting gifts applies.”
The opinion comes amid a statewide reckoning from revelations that now-disbarred celebrity plaintiffs’ lawyer Thomas Girardi skated past hundreds of complaints over decades including allegations he stole from clients. Girardi long cultivated friends throughout the state and the legal system.
“Every year, he hosted multiple lavish parties that were attended by politicians, judges, prominent attorneys, prosecutors, and State Bar employees and officials,” a report to the California Bar following a 16-year investigation said. Many federal and state judges and other prominent lawyers from leading law firms would attend the parties, the report said.
“Multiple witnesses spoke about how judges and other prominent lawyers or politicians at these events would rave about how highly they thought of Girardi,” it said.
Consider the Context
Judges often are invited to firm-hosted events. They first must consider whether attending will compromise public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary or suggest that the law firm is in a special position to influence the judicial officer, the draft said.
In a footnote, the draft said attending a law firm celebration “is distinguishable from attending a bar association or legal education event sponsored by law firms. Such activities do not generally undermine judicial impartiality, and a specific exception to the gift prohibition applies.”
Judges may accept gifts of nominal value. A judge and/or members of the judge’s family residing in the household may only accept “if the gift, bequest, favor, or loan would neither influence nor reasonably be perceived as intended to influence the judge in the performance of judicial duties” under the judicial canons.
The draft suggests exceptions to the general rule for functions hosted by lawyers that have no business purpose, such as a memorial service for a deceased lawyer, an adult child’s or spouse’s law firm celebration because the judicial officer would already be disqualified from hearing matters involving the law firm and exceptions to the gift prohibition apply. And there’s no prohibition against attending bar association events sponsored by law firms.
Comments on the draft are due July 10.
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