Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct
Formal Ethics Opinions

Formal Ethics Opinions

For the first time, in 1991, the Commission issued Formal Ethics Opinions. These opinions are based on actual Commission complaints that resulted in some form of private informal action. Formal Ethics Opinions are reported in a way that protects confidentiality. Only the minimum facts necessary to an understanding of the opinion are reported. The Commission continues supplementing these opinions as the situations occur. In 1994, the Commission continued to adopt new opinions.

Opinion #001

Judges who criticize jurors verbally, directly to them, for their work as jurors, violate Canons 2A and 3A (3) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Opinion #002

Judges who abuse the contempt power by jailing without basis or explanation act in an arbitrary and capricious manner that violates Canons 1, 2A, and 3A (4) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Opinion #003

Judges who use abusive and profane language off the bench towards attorneys appearing in their courtroom, violate Canons 1, 2 A, and 3 A (3) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Opinion #004

Judges who make racially oriented comments from the bench on issues that are not raised by the parties or without evidence taken, act in a way that constitutes conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.

Opinion #005

Judges who make derogatory sexual comments while off the bench to female attorneys and witnesses in a pending proceeding violate AS 22.30.011 (a)(3)(C) and (D).

Opinion #006

Judges who write one party in a proceeding without copying the other side and fail to notify the other side of a meeting between the judge and a party act in a way that constitutes improper ex parte communication that are prejudicial to the administration of justice violating Canon 3A(4) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Opinion #007

Judges who make racist jokes at public events violate Canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Such jokes are worse than profanity. While profanity may offend some and not others, racial slurs offend an identifiable class of people who have struggled to achieve equality.

Opinion #008

Judges who become involved with administrative matters of case assignments to other judges for personal reasons violate Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3A(4) and 3C(1).

Opinion #009

Judges who have an overly brusque manner in dealing with court personnel do not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct but should be aware of the need to control and moderate demeanor when relating to court staff.

Opinion #010

Presiding judges who, on a single occasion, may not have adequately investigated a complaint against a magistrate do not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct but should devote adequate time and resources when investigating those complaints.

Opinion #011

Judges who give speeches on general legal issues at political party fundraising events violate Canons 7A (1) (b) and (c) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Opinion #012

Judges who use the title "judge" in promotional literature for their businesses and use the court system phone number to conduct business, violate Canon 5 C(1) by improperly exploiting the judges' position.

Opinion #013

Judges who share a home telephone line with a spouse's law practice should obtain a separate phone line for the law practice. Sharing a personal phone line with a spouse's law practice could lead to the perception that the judge was also practicing law, and, potentially to inadvertent ex parte communications.

Opinion #014

A judge who held a questionable ex parte evidence hearing did not violate the ethical prohibition on ex parte communications where there was an arguable legal basis for holding the hearing ex parte. The Commission could not conclude by clear and convincing evidence that objectively the actions were "obviously wrong in the circumstances." Under the facts of the case, the defendant posed an extreme security risk, the defendant acted as his own co-counsel (requiring his presence if defense counsel were allowed into the hearing), and the judge preserved the entire transaction on record for review. (Approved August 28, 1992)

Opinion #015

A judge's phone call to the head of a state office responsible for handling criminal litigation regarding the state of the law under a landmark case, violated Canons 3A(4) and Canon 2A. The judge intended to use the information to draft jury instructions in a pending criminal matter before him. Though the judge did not know that the attorney had given advice to counsel in the case, the judge was aware that the office was part of the litigation team. The judge's subjective belief that the head of the office was a "disinterested expert" under Canon 3A(4) was not determinative. The Commission found that a reasonable prudent judge would not have reached the conclusion that the attorney was a disinterested expert. Because the attorney was visibly a part of the litigation team, the attorneys and public could reasonably conclude that the judge's phone call created an appearance of impropriety as well. (Approved August 28, 1992)

Opinion #016

A judge who had an inadvertent informal contact with a witness in a former related proceeding and did not disclose that contact to the parties at a hearing that immediately followed that contact, created an appearance of bias on the part of the court. At a minimum, the judge would have stated that nature of the judge's communication with the witness on the record before making other comments. The fact that the judge did not hold the hearing as scheduled, but instead used the opportunity to make brief statements to one party concerning prior orders, contributed to the appearance of bias. (Approved February 12, 1993)

Opinion #017

A judge who became aware of a witness's illegal drug trafficking during the course of civil litigation is under no affirmative ethical duty to report the criminal activity to appropriate authorities. While a judge is free to report the activity at a time and in a manner what will not affect any ongoing litigation before the judge, a judge has no obligation to do so. (Approved February 12, 1993)

Opinion #018

A judge was under no obligation to disqualify from hearing a case in which one of the appearing attorneys was serving as a discovery master for the judge in a pending unrelated case. While there was no absolute requirement to disqualify where the working relationship with the master was minimal and where the original appointment of the master was by another judge, a judge does have a duty to use reasonable efforts to disclose an ongoing relationship. Judicial appointments to paid positions like masters may give the public impression that the judge is conferring a monetary benefit and creating a special close professional relationship with the attorney who receives the appointment. Disclosure, by conveying the nature of the relationship, can enhance the public's trust in the process and the integrity of the judge. (Approved as modified December 10, 1993)

Opinion #019

Canon 5B(2), prohibits fund solicitation for charitable or civic organizations; it does not, however, require a judge to direct the organization to remove the judge's name from a list of officers, trustees, or directors where the listing is not a prominent part of the fund solicitation. A judge generally should not use the title of the judicial office in connection with any list of officers, trustees, or directors. The title, however, may be used to describe the judge's occupation if all officers, trustees, or directors are listed in a similar manner. (Approved as modified August 26, 1994)

Opinion #020

A judge who independently researched the prior convictions of a defendant that the judge sentenced, did not violate Canons 2A and 3A(4) of the Alaska Code of Judicial Conduct. Routine checking of court files is not improper, but fact-finding that goes beyond courts records may be. (Approved August 21, 1995)

Opinion #021

A judge who, immediately following a hearing, had lunch with one of the attorneys in the proceeding, violated Canon 2A by creating an appearance of impropriety. While nothing improper was discussed at lunch, the closeness in time between the hearing and the social lunch could create to a reasonable observer that the attorney had more influence over the judge based on their social relationship.

Opinion #022

A judge who routinely provides care for or supervises the judge's child in chambers violates Canons 2 and 3 A by giving the appearance that the judge's non- emergency family duties are paramount over judicial duties during court hours.

Opinion #023

A judge engages in improper political activity, violating Canon 5 A (1) (d), by moderating a partisan political debate. The debate represented all candidates for the political office and was not sponsored by a political party, nonetheless political debates by their nature engage the moderator in political discourse inappropriate to judicial office. Such a debate improperly lends the prestige of judicial office to the event in a state with a non-elected judiciary.

Opinion #024

A judge who recused from one hearing in a criminal case, but not from the case as a whole, did not conform to the requirements of Canon 3E of the Code of Judicial Conduct or the requirements of AS 22.20.020, Alaska’s disqualification statute. The judge granted a motion to disqualify for cause from an evidentiary hearing in the case but retained the ability to sit on the other aspects of the matter. Ethical standards do not allow for a partial disqualification for cause.

Opinion #025

A judicial officer who accepted rides from law enforcement while on duty in a small village without any form of public transportation did not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct where no ex parte communication concerning the pending criminal matter occurred. The circumstances in rural Alaska often create a need for accommodations that would not be suitable if there were other alternatives. Where these accommodations include assistance by law enforcement officers, great care should be given to avoiding any discussion of official matters while outside the courtroom. The best practice would be to disclose the special needs and accommodations on the record at the beginning of the court proceeding to avoid appearance of impropriety questions.

rev. 07/23/07 

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