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March 2012

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Code Carries Restrictions on Political Activities


In an election year, opportunities abound to participate in the political process. Indeed, at a basic level, citizens take part in the process by exercising their right to vote. However, members of the Judiciary, including judges and chambers, and court staff should be aware of certain restrictions on other activities.

Among the activities prohibited by Canon 5

  • Initiating or circulating a nominating petition for a candidate.
  • Serving in any position at a polling place or serving in any other position that relates to voting in a partisan election.
  • Publicly displaying a campaign picture, sign, sticker, badge, or button for a partisan or nonpartisan political candidate.
  • Attending or purchasing a ticket for a dinner or other event sponsored by a political organization or candidate.

Canon 5 of both the Code of Conduct for United States Judges and the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees is very clear: Judges and judicial employees should refrain from political activity. Advisory Opinion No. 92 provides additional guidance for judicial employees.

A judge or court employee should not act as a leader or hold any office in a partisan political organization. This includes making speeches for or publicly endorsing or opposing, or soliciting funds for or contributing to a partisan political organization, candidate, or event.

A judge, as well as a member of a judge's personal staff, clerk of court, chief probation officer, chief pretrial services officer, circuit executive, and district court executive "should refrain from nonpartisan political activity such as campaigning for or publicly endorsing or opposing a nonpartisan political candidate." Prohibitions apply on campaigning, endorsing, opposing, or becoming a non-partisan candidate.

According to Canon 5, "Other judicial employees may engage in nonpartisan political activity only if such activity does not tend to reflect adversely on the dignity or impartiality of the court or office and does not interfere with the proper performance of official duties." Needless to say, such activity may not be conducted while the employee is on duty or in the workplace and may not use federal resources.

Additional restrictions on the political activities of law clerks are covered in the publication, Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics for Federal Judicial Law Clerks.

What is Permitted

Of course, registering and voting in any primary or general election, including registering as a member of a political party is permitted for all members of the federal Judiciary. Judiciary employees are free to express opinions on political candidates or parties—as long as it's privately and as an individual. Participation in nonpolitical outside activities whether civic, charitable, religious, professional, educational, cultural, avocational, social, fraternal, or recreational is permitted. Judges and judicial employees may speak, write, lecture, and teach—as long as their activity complies with Canon 4 of the Code of Conduct, avoids the risk of conflict with official duties and the appearance of impropriety, and complies with disclosure requirements.