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September 2011

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Publication Highlights Ethical Obligations of Law Clerks

Publication Highlights Ethical Obligations of Law Clerks

Did you know that a law clerk has a strict obligation to keep information about cases and decision-making confidential—even after the clerk’s court service ends? Or that maintaining a profile on a social or professional networking site could land a law clerk in ethical hot water?

The ethical obligations of federal law clerks are detailed in an updated booklet, the latest addition in the ongoing ethics training and information provided to all levels of the federal Judiciary. Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics for Federal Judicial Law Clerks, is published by the Federal Judicial Center in cooperation with the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct. It’s available on-line at http://www.fjc.gov/library/fjc_catalog.nsf.

“Law clerks are sometimes called elbow clerks—literally at a judge’s elbow. The special ethics rules and restrictions for law clerks derive from the fact that law clerks have such a close association and working relationship with judges,” said Judge M. Margaret McKeown (9th Cir.), chair of the Codes of Conduct Committee. The frequent turnover in law clerks, who typically clerk for a one-year period, increases the need for the booklet.

“Uniformity of advice to law clerks on entry, during their term, and on exit, is important,” McKeown explained, “as is having readily accessible information on-line and in print.”

Good intentions are not enough, as the booklet makes clear. Ethical quandaries and questions—from the issues of confidentiality and conflicts of interest, to the pitfalls of gifts and social activities, are covered in its pages.

"The special ethics rules and restrictions for law clerks derive from the fact that law clerks have such a close association and working relationship with judges."

—Judge M. Margaret McKeown
(9th Cir.)

Law clerks are given a list of sources to consult to identify potential ethics problems. These include the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, the Judicial Conference regulations on gifts and honoraria, advisory opinions issued by the Judicial Conference Committee on the Codes of Conduct, and the Committee’s Compendium of Selected Opinions.

“Ethics are the foundation of a fair and impartial Judiciary,” said McKeown. “By providing easy access to a range of ethics resources for judges, law clerks, and staff—from informal to formal advice, and electronic and print publications—we never lose sight of our ethical obligations.” 

With the traditional transition of law clerks, the fall may be a convenient time to conduct ethics education for law clerks and other chambers staff. The Committee recently released the 2011 Ethics Quiz for Law Clerks—an on-line quiz designed to increase understanding of the broad range of ethics considerations related to their service as law clerks.

The Committee has published materials that can be referenced by courts, including guidelines on gifts and the use of social media, at www.uscourts.gov/RulesAndPolicies/CodesOfConduct.aspx.

The Federal Judicial Center, in addition to publishing an ethics booklet for law clerks and one on judicial disqualification, includes a session on the Codes of Conduct—usually led by a Codes of Conduct Committee member—during the orientation of new judges and in many continuing education workshops that judges attend.

The Center has developed the curriculum for a Codes of Conduct program delivered on-request for court employees and hosts two on-line e-learning programs for court employees: Avoiding Ethics Pitfalls (for judicial assistants and Clerk’s office employees); and, Everyday Ethics: A Matter of Choice (for probation and pretrial staff).