Informal Opinion 99-2
June 24,1999

Question: A judicial employee, who is a member of the Matheson Building Committee, has asked whether the employee may authorize display in the Matheson Courthouse of a plaque recognizing the Trial Lawyer of the Year of the Utah Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Answer: The employee may not authorize display of the plaque in the courthouse.

Discussion: The Matheson Building Committee (Building Committee)(1) has been asked to display a plaque recognizing the trial Lawyer of the Year of the Utah Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. The Committee has been provided a photograph of the plaque. The plaque is similar in form to other award plaques. At the top, it identifies the name of the award. Underneath, it lists the award recipient for each year. The judicial employee questions whether the employee may vote to approve placement of the plaque in the courthouse.

Canon 3C(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct states that "[a] judge should require staff, court officials and others subject to judicial direction and control to observe the standards of fidelity and diligence that apply to the judge." "The obligations of fidelity and diligence insure that employees are faithful to the judiciary in the employees' professional duties." Informal Opinion 98-2. To resolve this opinion request, the Committee must initially determine whether displaying the plaque would implicate an obligation of fidelity.

This opinion request involves the following provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct: 

           Canon 1. A judge shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

           An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing, and shall                     personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved. The provisions of this Code are to be                             construed and applied to further that objective.

           Canon 2. A judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.
           A.A judge shall respect and comply with the law and should exhibit conduct that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

           B. A judge shall not lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge . . . .

The fundamental duties imposed by these Canons are preserving public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary; not lending the prestige of the judicial office to advance others' private interests; and not allowing others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence a judge. These duties ensure faithfulness to the mission of the judiciary. The Committee is therefore of the opinion that these duties are ones of "fidelity and diligence" imposed upon judges and therefore must be followed by court employees.

Having determined that the court employee has an ethical stake in the placement of the plaque, the Committee must determine whether placement of the plaque violates any of the three duties discussed above. The Committee believes that, at the very least, the first duty is implicated.

Each of these duties relates to issues of perception. Impartiality, prestige and influence are all matters which can be reasonably perceived even in the absence of their actual existence. The Committee is concerned about the perception created by placing the plaque in the courthouse. Displaying the plaque in the courthouse is problematic because it may convey the impression that the court is endorsing certain lawyers. A courthouse is a symbol of impartial justice that reflects upon all the judges who work in the building as well as upon the judiciary as a whole. A plaque identifying particular advocates as "Trial Lawyer of the Year" in a court facility may imply to those seeing the plaque that the judiciary thinks more highly of particular lawyers. The Committee is particularly concerned about the effects upon litigants who might be involved in litigation against a client of one of the lawyers listed on the plaque. Because displaying the plaque may raise perceptions of partiality, displaying the plaque is inappropriate.

In making this conclusion, the Committee does not intend to imply that displaying the plaque will create partiality. Judges in the courthouse are often aware of attorneys who receive awards and distinctions. Simply becoming aware of those facts does not create actual partiality or even lead to a reasonable appearance of partiality. The appearance problems are created by displaying a plaque in a courthouse. Furthermore, the Committee does not believe that any individual judge could be sanctioned if the plaque were displayed. Nevertheless, because displaying the plaque may create the perception of partiality by the judiciary as a whole, judicial employees should take the necessary steps to ensure that the plaque is not displayed.

1. The Matheson Building Committee is a group of judicial branch employees with management responsibilities in the various state court components that are housed in the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse. The Building Committee oversees the management of the Courthouse.