Recently, a judge in Utah was suspended without pay for six months. The reason: He made a series of statements critical of President Trump, both in and out of court.
As the story circulated on social media, a lot of people were outraged that a judge was disciplined for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
While I appreciate the sentiment, those of us who assume duties as judges do agree to some restrictions of those rights. I suspect most of my colleagues thought the same thing I did when I read the specifics of the Utah case: Saying things like that is asking for trouble.
The source of these restrictions is the Code of Judicial Conduct, which defines what is and is not ethical behavior for judges. In Minnesota, Rule 4.1 of that code specifically prohibits judges and judicial candidates from doing a variety of political activities, including taking a leadership role in political organizations, making speeches on behalf of a political organization, and publicly endorsing or opposing another candidate for public office.
Nor can judges solicit funds for political organizations or candidates for public office, attend fundraisers or political rallies, or even make a personal financial contribution to candidates.
I’ll admit there have been times that these rules have been tough for me to follow. I have some good friends who have run for office, and I could not offer any support or help to their campaigns.
The rules even apply to my fellow judges, where the outcome of the election could affect me directly and significantly. But keeping my views to myself is part of the job.
Utah’s code is similar to Minnesota’s, and that judge admitted that several of his comments violated the code’s provisions.
It is also noteworthy that this particular judge had received lesser punishments on more than one occasion in the past, so the relatively harsh sanction this time around was, in part, due to these types of statements representing a pattern of conduct.
You can read the full text of the Utah Supreme Court’s decision at law.justia.com/cases/utah/supreme-court/2019/20171041.html.
The reasons for these restrictions are fairly simple. Judges are supposed to be fair and impartial. If litigants appearing in front of a judge think they have an advantage or disadvantage because of how the judge’s political views compare to their own, that can call into question the fairness of the proceedings.
And although it is unlikely that the Utah judge would ever have had a direct opportunity to rule on a policy or law advanced by the president, you can imagine how things would look if a federal district judge made similar comments.
Judges are all human beings, and we all have our opinions on matters of public concern. In these highly polarized times, a lot of those opinions are strongly held.
My family and close friends certainly know exactly how I feel about any number of political issues, parties and candidates. But I don’t share those opinions publicly and certainly not in court. We all know the potential consequences of disregarding those ethical rules.