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Judges should avoid Black Lives Matter rallies, ethics panel says

Demonstrators protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Demonstrators protest Saturday, June 6, 2020, near the White House in Washington over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Maryland’s Judicial Ethics Committee said Wednesday that judges cannot participate in such rallies. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Maryland judges should not participate in Black Lives Matter rallies because their clarion call for justice system reform and harsh criticism of law enforcement would bring the jurists’ impartiality into question when they return to the courtroom, the state’s Judicial Ethics Committee concluded in a published opinion issued Wednesday.

Specifically, participation in the events would violate rules of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct that require judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and to “maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives,” the committee added.

Spurred by the May 25 death of a Black man at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Black Lives Matter rallies have become regular events in Baltimore and other major U.S. cities and towns. The largely peaceful protests involve the chanting of slogans critical of the justice system, such as “No Justice, No Peace,” and signs pledging that George Floyd did not die in vain by expanding on his final words, “We Can’t Breathe.”

The ethics committee cited these messages in concluding that “a depiction of a judge, on social media or otherwise, at an event with signs such as these, could lead a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality in cases involving the police. And the judge, particularly in a large gathering, generally would not have knowledge of, or the ability to control, the signs that are displayed by others.”

The committee issued its decision in response to an unnamed individual’s question regarding whether a judge may participate in Black Lives Matter protests, marches, and rallies the focus “on overall racial inequality (locally and globally), as well as police brutality, justice system reform, voting rights, and economic equality.”

The commission had not issued a published opinion on the propriety of Maryland judges attending rallies in at least the past 45 years, according to an online review of its decisions.

In finding participation in a Black Lives Matter rally inappropriate, the panel examined judicial ethics opinions in Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. The rallies at issue included women’s rights marches and salutes to science amid the debate over global warming.

The states’ opinions uniformly held that participation in rallies “could undermine public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary,” the Maryland panel stated.

“Based on the general facts of this request (for an opinion), including the description of a march, protest, or rally associated with the Black Lives Matter movement as focusing on law enforcement and perceived problems with the justice system, as well as the committee’s general knowledge that these events may include signs containing messages that could cause a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality, we conclude that a judge should not participate in this type of event,” the committee stated in its five-page opinion.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the committee. The usually 13-member panel has one vacant position, reserved for an individual who is neither a lawyer nor employed by the Maryland Judiciary.

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