State of Washington
Ethics Advisory CommitteeOpinion 05-03
May a trial court judge or court staff participate as members of teams in the development of recommendations with regard to the funding/not funding of proposals from the county executive branch that may or may not be related to the law, the administration or the legal system?
The county executive has initiated a process for developing the county general fund budget. The county executive has developed a process whereby the county executive, through a series of public meetings, develops a list of priorities around which to build the budget for the coming year. The seven priorities identified through this process include: transportation; safety; education; health and vulnerability; community; security; effective, efficient and transparent government.
The teams are comprised of management staff from county departments and the offices of other elected officials assigned to each priority. The county executive identified an amount to be spent from the general fund on each priority, and county departments and elected officials were asked to submit proposals and develop recommendations for funding within the allocations made by the county executive.
None of the seven priorities were specific to the administration of justice, the law or the legal system. Proposals could be submitted by any county governmental unit to any one of the seven teams. The cross county governmental composition of the teams combined with their consideration of budget proposals from theoretically any governmental unit, meant in effect that the teams would be making recommendations to the executive for funding of activities outside of the scope of the particular knowledge of the individual team members. The county executive asked the trial court to provide individuals to serve on the teams to submit its budget for review to the team. Programs that were not recommended for funding would in theory not be included in the executive’s budget submitted to the county council.
CJC Canon 3(B) requires a judicial officer to discharge his or her administrative responsibilities diligently. CJC Canon 4(B) and 5(B) permit a judicial officer to participate in activities that deal with the law, the legal system and the administration of justice and to accept a position on a government entity devoted to those topics.
Adequate funding of the court system is fundamental to the operation of the court system. It is therefore appropriate for a judicial officer to participate in discussions and other activities with the county executive to ensure that the courts receive requisite funding for the effective and efficient operation of the courts. Even though it is appropriate for a judicial officer to participate in discussions with the county executive about the trial court’s budget, the judicial officer may not engage in discussions relative to the budgets of the other county departments and may not make recommendations to the county executive on the funding of any department beyond the operation of the trial court. If the judicial officer is able to confine his or her participation to matters concerning only the budget of the trial court, the judicial officer is permitted to participate on the budget teams.
Court staff is not subject to the restrictions applicable to a judicial officer under the Code of Judicial Conduct. Staff may therefore engage in discussions and recommendations which go beyond the budget of the court trial. Even though court staff may participate in these discussions, staff must make it clear that she or he is not speaking on behalf of the judges in any matters beyond those which affect the operation of the trial court.
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