Informal Opinion 98-6
June 18, 1998

The Ethics Advisory Committee has been asked by a district court judge whether service is permitted on a Domestic Violence Coalition. The Committee referred the request to the Judicial Council pursuant to Rule 3-109(6), Utah Code of Judicial Administration. In accordance with that provision the Council opted not to issue a formal opinion and instead "[a]pproved . . . the opinion . . . as initially drafted" and "direct[ed] the Committee to release the opinion . . . as an informal opinion of the Committee." Id. 3-109(6)(A).

The Domestic Violence Coalition is not created by statute. The coalition is apparently based on similar efforts in communities throughout the nation. These coalitions are typically organized on a local level. The effort to organize a coalition may be initiated by a representative from any number of organizations. There are no set membership requirements, although the coalitions try to obtain representation from various entities that deal with domestic violence, including the judiciary.

Because the coalition is not a statutory creation, there is a lack of information on how this particular coalition will be structured and what its focus and purposes will be. This prevents the Committee from making a determination as to whether service is permitted on the domestic violence coalition in question. However, other states have dealt with the issue of domestic violence coalitions and have issued advisory opinions. Based on these opinions, the Committee can offer advice to the judge as to the factors that need to be evaluated in determining whether service is appropriate.

Canon 4C(3) allows service in nongovernmental organizations which are "devoted to the improvement of law, the legal system, or the administration of justice." Service is not appropriate if the purposes and focus are broader than those permitted by the Code. See Informal Opinion 94-2. Service is also prohibited if the focus of the organization is too narrowly linked to one side of an issue, such as prosecution or defense. See Informal Opinion 98-4.

In Opinion No. 201, the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission stated that a judge could participate in a limited manner on a "family violence task force." The task force had adopted a model which encouraged judges to advocate certain positions and to be proactive in other positions dealing with family violence. The Commission found that a judge could not be associated with such an "activist" cause. However, the Commission found that a judge could participate in the task force to the extent that it discussed "coordination among the courts, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, and public assistance and other service providers, concerned with family violence." A consideration for the judge is therefore whether the coalition will include representatives from the various entities dealing with domestic violence. As noted by the Georgia Commission, the coalition must also be focused on improving coordination and not on advocacy. These positions are apparently supported by the Iowa Supreme Court, which in June 1995, also approved service by a judge on a domestic violence coalition as long as the coalition included broad representation and did not become an advocacy group. See Iowa Guidelines for Judicial Participation in Domestic Violence Coalitions. The Committee endorses this position.

The West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission, in a decision dated February 7, 1997, cautioned a judge from participating in a domestic violence coordinating council if the council was "intended to discuss specific cases or to be a forum for individual complaints." The Committee agrees that participation on the coalition would not be appropriate if specific cases are discussed or if the coalition simply becomes a forum where individual complaints are addressed. The details of specific cases should not be discussed, although the general issues from cases can be used to improve coordination.

In summary, service on a domestic violence coalition is permitted as long as the coalition does not have purposes other than those specified in Canon 4C(3), and includes representatives from various agencies and organizations that might be involved with domestic violence, including prosecution, defense, victim assistance and perpetrator assistance. The discussions of the coalition must focus on the system as a whole and not on individual cases or complaints. If the coalition's focus becomes too broad, the judge may nevertheless participate on a limited basis. Canon 4C(1)(a) allows a judge to address a public body on matters concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice. A judge could therefore decline to serve as a regular member of the coalition, but could offer to appear and participate in those discussions which will concern the general administration of domestic violence justice. In order for the judge to participate in these discussions, the participants in the group will need to reflect the various representatives in the domestic violence process.