Watch the Gifts, Ethics Committee Tells Judges

     (CN) - Judges should not accept even small gifts of little value if they appear to be from future parties or from those seeking to influence a judge's ruling, the California Supreme Court's ethics committee said Tuesday in an advisory opinion.
     The committee, whose 12 members are appointed by the state Supreme Court, is made up of trial judges and appellate justices from throughout California.
     Two members hold powerful positions on the Judicial Council, the rule-making body for the courts.
     Justice Douglas Miller is a council member and chairs the council's Executive and Planning Committee. Judge Kenneth So of San Diego is on the council and chairs its Rules and Projects Committee, another of the council's five powerful internal committees.
     Other ethics committee members sit on Judicial Council advisory bodies. For example, Judge Robert Trentacosta of San Diego is a member of the council's court facilities advisory committee, and Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury of El Dorado is on the council's workload advisory committee. Kingsbury also was a member of the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of 11 judges whose investigative report called for sweeping changes within the council's bureaucratic arm, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts but now known as "Judicial Council staff."
     A press release about the ethics opinion was put out by Court News, the public relations wing of the Judicial Council staff.
     The ethics committee was asked to settle the question of what to do with the small-value gifts and tokens of appreciation offered to judges in the course of daily life. It gave examples such as a gift card for coffee, a baseball cap from a judge's alma mater, tickets to a sporting event or pizza delivered to courtroom staff from a law firm.
     "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," the committee wrote. "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."
     Ethical canons 4D(5) and 4D(6) prohibit gifts under any circumstances from parties that are reasonably likely to come before a judge or if accepting the gift could be perceived as influence.
     The committee says that before accepting a gift, judges must ask themselves whether the gift falls under those canons, and if it would otherwise be accepted as "ordinary social hospitality."
     Judges should know if the gift is being offered by a current or former party, and must consider whether the giver is likely to appear before the judge in the future, a list the committee acknowledged "could theoretically include anyone in the world."
     Judges in small communities will have to be more discerning than colleagues in big cities, as their likelihood of hearing a gift-giver's matter is relatively higher, the committee says.
     Judges should also consider whether the gift is being offered for the purpose of socializing or for advancing the giver's interests.
     "Careful consideration of this distinction should be given in the example of a baseball cap or jersey bearing the logo of the hometown team or the judge's alma mater. Is the cap being offered for the purpose of socializing as opposed to advancing the interests of the team or school, and is it traditionally offered regardless of judicial office?" the committee asked.
     When considering whether the gift is hospitable, the committee said, a judge may use his or her own social conduct as a reasonable measure. So a gift such as a bottle of wine from a neighbor at Christmas may be acceptable. Tickets to sporting events from acquaintances, however, may not qualify.
     Judges should stay away from gifts from attorneys and law firms, the committee says, noting that in cases where judges are disciplined for accepting gifts, the donor is usually an attorney.