Wednesday, June 25, 2014
CJEO Offers Draft Opinion on Acceptance of Small Gifts
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Judges may not accept gifts from parties in cases before them, even small ones, the Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions said yesterday in a draft opinion.
The committee released Draft Formal Opinion 2014-005, “Accepting Gifts of Little or Nominal Value Under the Ordinary Social Hospitality Exception,” with a request for public comment. The draft warns that the exception will not always permit a judge to accept gifts that may be “low in extrinsic dollar value but high in intrinsic social value,” citing as examples the delivery of pizza by a law firm to courtroom staff following a long trial, or a small-value gift coupon or card offered to a judge who has provided volunteer services.
The committee warned:
“The gracious and spontaneous offering of the small value items the committee has been asked to examine might lead an unwary judge to accept them based on several faulty assumptions. One is that the items are de minimis and therefore do not fall within the gift ban in the canons. Another incorrect assumption is that the ordinary social hospitality exception is a catch-all covering any circumstance not otherwise specified in the gift exceptions. And finally, because the items are relatively insignificant in value, a judge might erroneously assume that any ethical violation incurred by acceptance would also be insignificant and easily cured by disclosing the gift or donating it to others.”
The committee concluded that even small gifts must be declined if the giver is likely to appear before the judge as a party, if they create a perception of favor or influence, or if a person aware of the gift would reasonably believe it was being given with the intent or expectation of obtaining an advantage.
“When offered a gift of nominal value, a judge should consider whether it is something that would traditionally be offered in circumstances involving socializing rather than business,” the committee explained. It cited as an example an offer to give a judge a ticket to a sporting event that the donor is not able to use, saying acceptance might be unethical in the absence of a prior social relationship between the judge and the donor.
In a footnote, the committee cited a similar example from retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Rothman’s judicial ethics treatise. Rothman “similarly concludes that it would not be appropriate for the judge to accept the tickets, unless the relationship with the attorney is such that the judge would not sit on any case involving the attorney.”
The committee requested that comments on the draft opinion be submitted no later than Aug. 8, online at http://www.JudicialEthicsOpinions.ca.gov/itc; by email to Judicial.Ethics@jud.ca.gov; or by mail to Ms. Nancy Black, Committee Counsel, The California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions, 350 McAllister Street, San Francisco, California 94102.
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