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Judges should be cautious with recommendations, Md. ethics panel says

Judges may write letters of recommendation for lawyers who appear before them provided the attorneys are more than an acquaintance and the judges do not give the appearance of pressing the power of their office to the letters’ recipients, the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee stated in a published opinion released Tuesday.

The letters should also be addressed to specific individuals, as the generic heading “to whom it may concern” could cause “embarrassment or unanticipated conflicts” for the judges depending upon the recipients, the committee stated.

The panel offered its view in response to an unnamed judge’s inquiry regarding the ethics of writing a letter of recommendation on official letterhead for an attorney who practices before the judge and is seeking new employment.

“In this circumstance, as long as there is no appearance of coercion to hire or other impropriety, a recommendation based on the judge’s personal knowledge of the lawyer’s qualifications and his or her practice before the (judge) would be permitted,” the committee wrote. “An example of a situation where a letter of recommendation might not be permitted on the ground that it appeared coercive is if the addressee was a party or a lawyer in a matter pending before the judge.”

In its opinion, the ethics panel specifically cited Rule 18-101.3 of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct, which states that “a judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge, or allow others to do so.”

Written commentary accompanying the rule states that judges may write employment recommendations based on their “personal knowledge” of the applicant and use letterhead if they indicate “the reference is personal and if there is no likelihood that the use of the letterhead would reasonably be perceived as an attempt to exert pressure by reason of the judicial office.”

The committee called the judges’ personal knowledge of the applicants the “one condition that must be satisfied before a judge may write a letter of recommendation or act as a reference.”

“(A) judge with special knowledge regarding a person’s qualifications is free, as a citizen, to pass on such knowledge and recommendation,” the panel stated. “A judge should not, however, write a letter of recommendation for an acquaintance when the judge does not have special knowledge of the acquaintance’s qualifications for a particular position. Without such knowledge, the judge would simply be lending the weight and prestige of his name and his office to benefit the employee.”

In its opinion, the committee reiterated its 2019 decision that judges should never provide recommendations for lawyers on attorney-rating websites, such as Avvo.

“(P)ermitting a reference that would be displayed on a public online marketing site is not appropriate because it would improperly confer the prestige of office to the attorney’s marketing efforts and invite neutrality challenges from opposing parties and counsel when the attorney appeared in the judge’s courtroom.”

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the 13-member ethics 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.