It comes as no surprise that over the years judges have received awards for their help raising awareness about the social costs of drinking and driving, in part through their work sentencing offenders in alcohol-related cases.

The last time a sitting judge in the state was widely recognized in that way was in 2010, when Superior Court Judge Susan B. Handy won state and national awards from Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. But a Judicial Branch ethics committee has put the brakes on the practice, at least unofficially, with an advisory opinion that such awards can undermine public confidence in a judge’s impartiality or create a situation that might “advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others.”

No one has accused any judge of being bought and paid for MADD. And no one is saying that the national group that lobbies for tougher punishments for drunk drivers did anything wrong by offering the award. The request for an advisory opinion was made recently by an unnamed judge, who asked the Committee on Judicial Ethics if accepting an award offered by the group would break any ethics rules. The judge had been picked to receive an award at MADD’s annual community dinner next month. As part of the prize, MADD offered to buy the judge and a guest dinner.

The answer came as a surprise to some. But because MADD is a “a victim support and advocacy group that takes strong positions on DUI cases and lobbies actively on behalf of its interests,” and because it receives a fee whenever a judge orders a person to attend one of its alcohol education programs, the conflict was clear to the panel.

The opinion, which is not binding on the Judicial Review Counsel or any court in determining discipline for judges, has been posted on the Judicial Branch web site. It raises the question: What types of awards can judges receive from community groups?

‘Heavily One-Sided’

The answer, said former state Supreme Court Justice Barry R. Schaller, who chairs the committee that issued the opinion, is that judges may accept an award “that is not in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.” What that means, under the code, is generally that judges cannot accept any gift of any value if it would create the appearance of favoring one side of an issue over another.

“Judges are often honored by bar associations or by organizations of judges,” said Leslie C. Levin, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor at University of Connecticut School of Law. “The short answer,” she said, “is that judges can receive honors from groups that are not likely to be involved as parties in court or as direct beneficiaries of court decision-making.”

In its advisory opinion, which took into account similar decisions by similar committees in New York and Florida, the ethics panel pointed out that while “MADD’s goal’s may be laudable, the organization appears to be heavily one-sided in nature as it identifies itself as a victim support and advocacy group.”

The committee noted that MADD, which actively lobbies the legislature to enact tougher DUI laws, receives a $75 fee every time a judge sentences someone to its alcohol education program, which shows offenders the emotional suffering experienced by victims of drunk driving accidents and their families. Referring offenders to the MADD programs is not a mandatory part of a DUI sentence, but up to the sentencing judge. Thus, following the panel’s reasoning, a judge accepting an award from MADD might be more likely to include alcohol education programs in future DUI sentences.

It its opinion, the Connecticut committee pointed out that Florida’s advisory panel had found the acceptance of a MADD award “under these circumstances would cast doubt on the accepting judge’s impartiality in future DUI cases.”

Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of MADD Connecticut, said her organization has selected judges to receive similar awards in the past. “Some have accepted and some have not,” she said. In the future, Heggie Margolis said, her group will not select judges “based on what the ethics board found.”

Agree To Disagree

The award in question was created this year in honor of Superior Court Judge Richard Damiani, a presiding criminal judge who died in July after serving on Superior Courts in Ansonia, Bridgeport, Meriden, Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford.

Because Damiani, through his sentences, was considered a supporter of MADD’s efforts to raise public awareness about the public danger of DUI, Heggie Margolis said, “it only made sense” to pick a judge to win an award in his name.

Heggie Margolis said she didn’t believe that Judge Damiani’s words of support for her group had influenced any of his sentencing decisions. On the contrary, she said, the judge always made it clear to her that “we could always safely agree to disagree,” on DUI sentences. “That was his right as a judge and that was my right as a community activist,” she said.

While Heggie Margolis feels badly for the judge who cannot accept the award, she understands the committee’s position. “We’re not in a position to argue with the court,” she said.

The legal point of the opinion, lawyers said, is that judges have to avoid appearing close to any advocacy group that favors any one cause, including ethnic-background or gender-based organizations.

“I think this is the right decision,” said Ralph Monaco, a former president of the Connecticut Bar Association. “While well-intended, an award by an advocacy group that appears in court creates a potential impression that the judge might favor this group. This appearance or impression should be avoided.”

Schaller, chair of the Committee on Judicial Ethics, said the advisory opinion does not address any judges who have accepted awards from MADD or any other advocacy group in the past. The committee only contemplates “proposed future conduct or contemplated future conduct,” he said. “We do not take positions on past conduct.”

The committee was launched in 2008 by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers. The appointed members get together when they receive a request for an opinion, which typically occurs about 30 times a year.

The current membership includes Schaller, Judge Edward R. Karazin Jr., Judge Maureen D. Dennis, Judge Christine E. Keller and Professor Jeffrey Meyer of Quinnipiac Law School. Judge Thomas J. Corradino is an alternate member.

The Code

When an inquiry is made, the judge or magistrate who makes the request is asked to provide factual information about the issue at hand. The ethics committee then makes a preliminary review of relevant rules and members look up the judicial codes in other states, to see how similar questions have been handled. “We’ll then meet by teleconference at an agreed time,” Schaller said.

The committee, he said, tries to keep its advisory opinions “very narrow,” speaking only to the facts in the matter before them. “We don’t try to think about what else these opinions might apply to,” Schaller said.

In 2010, Judge Handy received the 2010 MADD National President’s Criminal Justice Judge Award “for her active involvement in MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving by incorporating creative sentencing in alcohol-related cases,” according to MADD. “And referring convicted DUI offenders to attend MADD Victim Impact Panels.”

Through a Judicial Branch spokeswoman, Handy declined to comment for this article.

Attorney John Logan, who chairs the Connecticut Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics, said there are “lots of areas where judges can be given awards.” Such awards that can be bestowed without raising the appearance of impropriety include service awards for legal writing and work “to educate the bar and educate the public” on legal issues.

For example, he said, “think about Judge [Raymond] Norko,” known for his work on the Hartford Community Court, who has been awarded the Charles J. Parker Legal Services Award by the Connecticut Bar Association and the Hartford County Distinguished Service Award. “There are a variety of law-related awards that go to judges for their contributions to the law.”

But when it comes to accepting awards from groups outside of the legal community, he said, “I would imagine the lonely lives of judges. They have to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

What stood out to Logan in the recent advisory opinion was the focus on the commercial interests of MADD, specifically the $75 the group gets for everyone sentenced to its alcohol awareness program. “I don’t believe any judge would make a decision” because they got an award, Logan said. “But you can’t afford any appearance of impropriety.”

The decision, he said, could “raise some questions” on whether other groups which might have a commercial interest, such as a trial lawyers association, can give awards to judges. But, he said, that is the point of the Committee on Judicial Ethics, to answer just such questions.•