Topic: Professions & Institutions

When Judges Dress Up

Which is more unethical for a judge: dressing in blackface, or dressing as Santa Claus?

It’s a trick question! The answer seems to be that they are equally unethical, though for different reasons.

For some odd reason, creatively dressed judges were much in the news in December. A Louisiana judge who dressed in blackface for a Halloween party (his wife was dressed as a police woman, see, and he was in a prison jump suit and handcuffs…well, I guess you had to be there) was suspended for six-months and ordered to attend sensitivity training. On this matter, Ethics Scoreboard has its doubts that the patient can be saved.

Ethics is often just a matter of hearing the alarm bells go off in your head (some call it a conscience) when unethical (in this case, stupid and unethical) conduct beckons. Let’s see…you’re a judge, and you’re supposed to stand for dignity, fairness and justice. Your wife has the idea of your going to a Halloween party in blackface (a party, by the way, hosted by your brother-in-law who will be dressed like Buckwheat from the “Our Gang” comedies). Hear bells yet? If not, it is hard to believe that any sensitivity training yet devised is going to fix that faulty clapper. We’ll see, but the betting here is that at next year’s party that judge is going as Charlie Chan or the Frito Bandito.

He may well be a lost cause, but a Florida judge thought he was doing a good thing when he got into his costume. It was Christmas time, and he volunteered to ring a bell on a street corner for the Salvation Army while dressed in a Santa suit. “Uh-uh,”said Florida’s judicial ethics authority, the Florida Supreme Court, in an opinion handed down on December 8th. Canon 5C(3)(b)(i), Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, provides that a judge “may assist such an organization [non-profit] in planning fund-raising…., but the judge may not personally participate in the solicitation of funds or other fundraising activities, except the judge may solicit funds from judges over whom the judge does not have supervisory or appellate authority.” So the court ruled that the judge was violating this provision, which is intended to stop judges from lending their prestige and high office to fundraising efforts.

The dissenters on the court cried, “Scrooge!” to their colleagues. Surely this isn’t the type of fundraising the ethics rule anticipated, and besides, the judge was disguised! Where’s the harm?

Ah, but was he disguised?

If he could be recognized, then donors who might want to ingratiate themselves with the judge might just give the Salvation Army an extra-generous contribution…exactly what the rule-makers want judges to avoid. And if he wasn’t recognizable, well, isn’t that deceptive? A judge, the model of openness and honesty, going out into public while disguising his true identity?

The lesson appears to be that it is just ethically risky for judges to play dress-up. But as they get to wear those cool black robes all day, it’s hard to have much sympathy for them.


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