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Judges may not attend office-seeking spouses’ events, Maryland ethics panel says

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the 13-member ethics committee. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Judges may not attend the campaign events of their office-seeking spouses lest the appearance of judicial impartiality be compromised, the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee stated in a published opinion released last week.

The advisory panel also said judges may appear in family photos in their spouses’ campaign literature but may not be identified as a judge or provide an “explicit endorsement” of their spouses’ candidacy.

“This prohibition reflects the concern that public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judge will be jeopardized if judges are, or appear to be, politically influenced,” the committee wrote. “In addition, a judge’s participation in political activity on behalf of a candidate risks being perceived as a public endorsement of the candidate spouse, which is prohibited, and lending the prestige of judicial office to advance the interests of others.”

The committee offered its view in response to an unnamed judge’s inquiry regarding the ethics of attending and introducing his or her spouse at the spouse’s campaign events and of appearing in campaign brochures. The judge stated he or she recognized an ethical prohibition on attending campaign functions aimed at raising funds, to which the panel said “any campaign event is potentially a fund-raising event.”

In issuing its opinion, the ethics committee stated that it “sought to balance the requirements of the (ethical) code with the spouse’s interests and right to participate in political activities.”

The panel cited prior opinions in which it permitted the spouse running for office to post a campaign sign on jointly owned property and allowed the judge’s spouse to make political contributions but only from his or her personal account.

“In those situations, the judge played no active or express role in the spouse’s political activities,” the committee stated.

“In balancing the requirements of the code and the candidate spouse’s interests in mounting an effective campaign, we believe that the (judge’s) photograph may be used in family photographs so long as the (judge’s) title or office is not mentioned, there are no visual elements identifying the (judge) as a judge, and no explicit endorsement is featured,” the panel added. “We recognize that family photographs are important fixtures in political campaigns and the absence of a spouse in such a photograph would invite speculation and misrepresent to voters the candidate spouse’s family situation.”

In its opinion, the panel specifically cited Rule 18-101.2 of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary” and to “avoid conduct that would create in reasonable minds a perception of impropriety.”

The commission also cited Rules 18-104.2 and 18-101.3, which prohibit judges who are not themselves candidates from engaging in “any partisan activity” or from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.”

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the 13-member committee, which consists of six sitting judges, three former judges, a circuit court clerk, a judicial appointee and two people who are neither lawyers nor employed by the Maryland Judiciary.