Judicial appointees may not be beneficiaries of GoFundMe donation drives to defray their medical expenses because public confidence in the judiciary is harmed when the “prestige” of office could be used for financial gain via a widespread social media solicitation, the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee stated this month.
In its reported opinion, the committee said appointees may seek contributions from family members, friends and those who would certainly not appear before them.
However, GoFundMe campaigns do not discriminate and permit donations from those who may appear before the judicial appointees, who include district court commissioners and standing magistrates, examiners and auditors, the ethics panel stated.
“Persons may feel a desire to contribute to the GoFundMe account based on the (appointee’s) position,” the committee wrote. “Any donations received from persons who do not fall within the small category of persons for whom gifts are permitted risks creating an appearance of impropriety.”
Even anonymous GoFundMe donations raise ethical concern because the appointee, by not knowing the funding source, “would not recuse from matters that the (appointee) would be disqualified from handling,” the panel added.
The committee issued its opinion in response to a question for an unnamed judicial appointee facing extensive medical treatment for a serious illness. The appointee asked if money received from a GoFundMe account established by a relative would have to be reported on the appointee’s annual financial disclosure statement.
The panel responded that the “threshold question” is whether a GoFundMe account may be established in the first place for a judicial appointee, and the answer is no.
The committee cited Rule 18.201.1 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Appointees, which requires them to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.” Appointees must “avoid conduct that would create in reasonable minds a perception of impropriety” under the rule.
In addition, Rule 18.201.2 states that “a judicial appointee shall not lend the prestige of the judicial appointee’s position to advance the personal or economic interests of the judicial appointee or others, or allow others to do so,” the panel wrote.
The committee noted that a GoFundMe campaign involves a multistep process in which the organizer describes the fundraiser’s purpose, states the amount sought, includes photos of the beneficiary, advertises the effort via email and on social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, and manages the donations.
“In summary, we interpret the code as limiting the ability of a judicial appointee to fundraise to cover personal expenses as the result of an illness – even if a relative sets up and manages the fundraising account,” the panel stated. “While the code permits, the (appointee’s) friends, family and certain others to donate funds to offset the expenses that the (appointee) has incurred or will incur as a result of medical treatment, we do not believe that the code permits a GoFundMe or similar account to be set up for this purpose, inasmuch as the account would not limit who could donate and donations could be anonymous.”
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.