Opinion No. 179 (1995)

QUESTION: Does a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct occur if a judge's former law office now owned by a trust created to benefit judge's minor children is rented to lawyers who practice in judge's court?

Judge owned office building where he practiced law. One year, prior to filing to run for his present position, the judge conveyed ownership of the building to a trust established to benefit the judge's minor children. Judge's brother is trustee. Since the judge assumed the bench (approximately 1-1/2 years after conveying the building to the trust), the trustee has made all decisions concerning management of the trust assets with no input from the judge. The portion of the building which is judge's former law office is now rented to lawyers who practice in judge's court.

FACTS ASSUMED: Judge's children are receiving a direct benefit from the rental of the building by lawyers. Lawyers are not paying greater than market value for the office space.

ANSWER: Yes.1 This question is not governed by Opinion 153 nor is it a violation of Canon 4D(1), (2), or (3) because this is not a financial or business dealing of the judge. It is not an economic interest of the judge since he is not an officer, advisor or other active participant in the affairs of the trust. See Canon 8B(5).

The Code does not govern the conduct of judge's family members under the circumstances presented here, assuming the law office is being rented for fair market value. Canon 4D(4)(d) specifically allows the judge's children to receive a benefit provided the benefit could not reasonably be perceived as intended to influence the judge in the performance of judicial duties.

Canon 2A provides that a judge "should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." Canon 2B requires that a judge not allow any relationship to influence his judicial conduct or judgment or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.

Although the judge has made all efforts to remove himself from the management, control or involvement in the operation of the trust, the fact remains that his children are directly benefitting from the rents paid by lawyers who regularly appear before the judge. Because the judge has a statutory duty to support his minor children, any support the children receive from the trust provides an indirect benefit to the judge. He has a conflict between his desire to be removed and detached from the operations of the trust, but is required by Canon 4D(3) to "... make a reasonable effort to be informed about the personal economic interest of any family member residing in the judge's household."

1 One Committee member dissents.
It is the Committee's opinion that the judge cannot allow lawyers to appear in his court when those lawyers are renting his former law office from a trust established to benefit his minor children who are living in the judge's household. If this relationship continues, public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary would be diminished, and the public would have the impression that some lawyers are in a special position to influence the judge.