SAN FRANCISCO—The Supreme Court of California on Wednesday unanimously adopted a slate of amendments to the California Code of Judicial Ethics, including additions that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, offer guidance on the use of social media, and allow judges to accept certain nominal gifts.
The amendments and revisions were posted for public comment earlier this year and are based on the recommendations of the court’s Advisory Committee on the Code of Judicial Ethics.
The court approved major updates to judicial ethics canons and commentary in the following areas:
Gender identity, gender expression, and harassment: New amendments will add gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected categories (e.g., race, sex, gender) to canons prohibiting discrimination, bias and prejudice against people within these protected categories. They would also prohibit harassment based on protected categories.
Use of electronic media and social media: This addition to the commentary is the first related to the use of social media in California’s judicial ethics code. Judges must exercise caution when engaging in the use of electronic communication, including social media.
Accepting nominal gifts: This amendment provides an exception to bans on gifts allowing judges to accept “nominal gifts,” except from attorneys or others who are likely to appear before them. Examples of nominal gifts include: snacks or a token memento from jurors, key chains or pens provided by vendors at legal conferences, or handicrafts or art projects from students.
New canon on campaign contributions or endorsements: A new canon 5B(4) moves previous commentary into the canon itself to state that judges are permitted to solicit campaign contributions or endorsements from anyone, including attorneys. But judges are prohibited from using the prestige of judicial office in a way that would reasonably be perceived as coercive when soliciting contributions or endorsements. They are also prohibited from soliciting contributions or endorsements from subordinate judicial officers, retired judges serving in the Assigned Judges Program, and California state court staff, as employees reporting to a judge may feel compelled to donate or endorse them.
Soliciting campaign contributions for another judicial candidate: There is new commentary following canon 5B(4) clarifying that a judge may solicit campaign contributions and endorsements for another judicial candidate, regardless of whether the candidate is an incumbent or an attorney running for judicial office. The new commentary also cautions that judges may need to disqualify themselves from a case or disclose the campaign activity if they solicit funds or endorsements from an attorney candidate for judicial office who later appears before them. These provisions cover recall elections.
The amendments also clarify and improve the code relating to accepting scholarships and fellowships, taking corrective action regarding attorney misconduct, and consulting with other judges.
The core tenets underlying the Code of Judicial Ethics are to promote public trust and confidence in the judiciary, to ensure the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and to provide useful guidance to California’s judicial officers and candidates for judicial office as they serve on the bench or stand for election.