The California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions (CJEO) issued a final opinion after considering comments from the public on a draft formal opinion outlining how judges may assist family members in law-related matters.
CJEO Formal Opinion 2021-017 discusses the fact that judges may not practice law under both the California Constitution and Code of Judicial Ethics and offers guidance about what advice judges may give family members when asked for legal assistance. The opinion explains case law that defines certain activities as constituting the practice of law, but advises that where there is no clear precedent, judges may not advise their family members if doing so would interfere with the performance of official judicial duties or erode the integrity of the judiciary.
The committee specifically advises that judges are not permitted to:
- accept compensation for help with legal matters;
- neglect official duties in favor of a matter involving a family member;
- provide advice that would cause a reasonable person to question the judge’s independence or integrity; or
- act, or appear to act, as an advocate.
As guidance for what assistance judges may provide to close family members, the committee concludes they may give general legal information, provide statements of law, explain court procedures and court rules, and give guidance about legal requirements. The opinion discusses examples involving assistance with demand letters and help with employment offers, which may be used for reference in specific circumstances judges will encounter.
Following public comment, the committee included advice that:
- judges explain to family members and others who ask for legal advice that judges are prohibited from practicing law.
- in addition to being permitted to represent themselves, judges are able to serve as an executor, administrator, trustee, guardian, attorney-in-fact, or other fiduciary or personal representative of a family member, so long as that representation would not interfere with their judicial duties, come before them as a judge, or come before their court or appellate district.
- the assistance they are permitted to give family members is similar to the discretion they exercise when giving self-represented litigants legally permitted information about the law.
The committee’s formal opinion is posted on CJEO’s website.
This opinion shows the value of the public comment process, which helped the committee focus its advice to be more practical and understandable to judges and the public,” said CJEO member Judge Robert J. Trentacosta of the San Diego Superior Court.
All nonconfidential comments submitted to CJEO are posted on CJEO’s website for public review. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 9.80(h)(1) & (4).) The committee’s invitation to comment and draft formal opinion are also posted with its approved final opinion.
About the Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions (CJEO)
The Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions is a 12-member advisory committee that includes appellate justices, trial court judges and commissioners. The committee is appointed and authorized by the California Supreme Court, but its work is independent of the court, the Judicial Council, and all other entities. Its opinions are advisory and do not necessarily reflect the views of the California Supreme Court or any other entity.
The committee issues formal, informal, and expedited advisory opinions on proper judicial conduct pursuant to the California Code of Judicial Ethics and other authorities. CJEO its opinions on the CJEO website for the benefit of the bench and the public.