Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 488, which provides guidance on a judge’s obligation to recuse because of a social or close personal relationship with a lawyer or party. ABA Formal Opinion 488 is here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_488.pdf
According to the opinion, which was released on September 5, 2019, a judge is not required to automatically recuse or be disqualified if a lawyer or party in a matter before the judge is an acquaintance or friend; however, recusal or disqualification is necessary when the judge is in a close personal relationship with a lawyer or party in a matter.
Formal Opinion 488 interprets the Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11, which requires judges to identify situations where their impartiality might reasonably be questioned—an age-old and fluid determination, beyond the specific provisions in Rule 2.11(A)(1)-(6). The opinion states “that relationships vary widely, potentially change over time, and are unique to the people involved.” As such, the opinion trifurcates judge’s social interactions and relationships into (1) acquaintanceships; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships.
Rule 2.11(A)(1) addresses the standard of when “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” In addition, Rule 2.11(A)(2) specifies situations where “the judge knows that the judge, the judge’s spouse or domestic partner, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse or domestic partner of such a person is:
(a) a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, general partner, managing member, or trustee of a party;
(b) acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;
(c) a person who has more than a de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding; or
(d) likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.”
The opinion notes that a judge must recuse or be disqualified when the judge has or pursues a romantic relationship with a lawyer or party in a matter; however, other “close personal relationships” (such as amicably divorced individuals who maintain joint custody), require that the judge follow Rule 2.11(C), which permits disclosure and waiver of the recusal.
Under Rule 2.11(C), a judge subject to disqualification because of a friendship or close personal relationship may disclose on the record the basis of the potential disqualification and ask the parties and their lawyers to consider, outside the presence of the judge and court personnel, whether to waive the disqualification. If the parties and lawyers agree after the disclosure (and without participation by the judge or court personnel), that the judge should not be disqualified, the judge may participate in the proceeding. The stipulation must be incorporated into the record of the proceeding.
The opinion states that a close personal relationship is covered by Rule 2.11(A)(2) and requires disqualification, but acquaintances do not. Further, whether friendships should result in disclosure and recusal depends on the specific facts. The opinion does not address social media (such as Facebook “friendships”) and states that interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationship participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of the opinion.
Bottom line: This opinion provides guidelines for judges (and lawyers) on a judge’s obligation to recuse (or be subject to disqualification) because of a social or close personal relationship with a lawyer or party.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2999 Alt. 19, Suite A
Palm Harbor, Florida
Office (727) 799-1688
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