By a MetNews Staff Writer
Judges may give staff members, and receive from them, gifts of modest value so long as the presents are not of an inappropriate nature and there is no implication of an expectation of a gift in return, and the judge doesn’t play favorites among staff members, the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions said in an opinion released yesterday.
The expedited opinion says:
“Judges are encouraged to maintain good relations with then courtroom staff and to foster a healthy work environment….Acknowledging birthdays, holidays and other special occasions can be an appropriate way to build morale among a judge and his or her staff. On such occasions, there is no ethical impediment for a judge to exchange modest gifts with staff as part of the celebrations….
“When giving gifts to their courtroom staff, judges must take care that they show no bias or favoritism….To the extent reasonably possible, judges should endeavor to treat their staff equally. For example, judges should not give holiday gifts to different staff members that are significantly disproportionate. Similarly, judges should not celebrate the birthdays of certain of their staff while ignoring the birthdays of others. Judges also should be sensitive to and respect the fact that staff may come from different faiths and traditions. To the extent reasonably possible judges should tailor any gifts that they give to align with the heritage and belief systems of their staff.”
The opinion cautions against creating any impression on the part of staff members that they are expected to reciprocate, suggesting that recipients of gifts be told outright that no such expectation exists. It says judges should not be involved in soliciting participation in group gifts.
It also warns against gifts “that are offensive or demeaning, for example by being obscene, profane or degrading in any way to the recipient or to others.” It cited a 2002 Commission on Judicial Performance decision imposing a public censure on a former Riverside Superior Court judge who, as a joke, had a court interpreter who arrived late handcuffed and subjected her to a mock contempt hearing.
“In addition, judges cannot give gifts that would be perceived as harassing, for example if given in the expectation of fostering a romantic or sexual relationship with a staff person,” it says, citing a 2015 decision removing a Tulare Superior Court from office. He had written a sexually explicit letter for the purpose of gaining a closer relationship with his courtroom clerk.
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