July 20, 2011
Letters and the Law
The South Carolina Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct opines that a judge may not write a letter congratulating his church for hosting a conference.
A family court judge is a member of a church, which holds a conference every four years. A souvenir journal is generated as a part of the conference. Individuals and businesses place ads in the journal. A member of the journal committee has asked the judge to write a letter for the journal. In the past, letters have been written by the mayor and other city officials. In the letters, the writer congratulates the church for hosting the conference and welcomes the conference attendees. The judge wants to know if it is appropriate to write a letter and if so, can it be on the judge’s letterhead.
The Committee has not addressed the exact question presented. However, the Committee has considered whether a judge could write letters to the congregation to pray for the church and its stewardship mission (Op. No. 16-1995). The Committee determined that such activity was too closely related to solicitation of funds and uses the prestige of judicial office to solicit funds, and thus, concluded that the judge could not write such letters. Similarly, in 26-2000, the Committee found that a judge should not participate in a church video that encouraged parishioners to become active in the church and its fund-raising activities. Here, there is no indication that the judge’s letter will in any way solicit funds, and thus Op. Nos. 16-1995 and 26-2000 do not apply.
However, a judge must not use the prestige of office to advance the private interest of others. The inclusion of the judge’s letter could possibly be used as an incentive to get individuals or businesses to place ads in the journal. If the judge’s involvement is to be used as an enticement to others to buy ads, then it would appear that the judge is lending the prestige of office to the church in violation of Canon 2, and would not be permitted. Thus, the judge should not write a letter for the conference’s souvenir brochure.
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