Earl Warren State Building, California State Supreme Court. (Jason Doiy/The Recorder)

An official committee that confidentially gives guidance to California judges on ethical questions has advised that an appellate justice has no obligation to step off a case where a prior professional acquaintance filed an amicus curiae brief.

The Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions (CJEO), a 12-member group of current and former judicial officers, on Nov. 2 issued a summary of oral advice that it gave a California appellate justice who asked if disqualification obligations kick in when a justice is acquaintances with leading members of associations urging for a particular outcome in a case.

In the underlying case, the CJEO noted the judge in question had a relationship with an amicus author that was limited to greetings at events and the occasional lunch meeting, but nothing within the past two years.

“The justice has discretion to decline to disqualify,” said the CJEO’s brief summary. “The Code of Judicial Ethics obligates an appellate justice to make a discretionary decision to disqualify if the circumstances are such that a reasonable person aware of the facts would doubt the justice’s ability to be impartial.”

The CJEO pointed back to a 2014 oral advice summary where it stated an appellate justice need not be disqualified when a nonprofit organization he or she is a member of files an amicus brief.

“In appellate proceedings, an amicus curiae is not a party to the action, but rather a person or entity that applies for permission to file a brief to assist the court in deciding the matter,” the CJEO wrote in the Nov. 2 summary.  The CJEO noted that in its earlier decision, it concluded that given the limited power and input of an amicus “a reasonable person would not doubt a justice’s ability to be impartial in deciding the interests of the parties in circumstances where the justice was a member of an organization that had filed an amicus brief. “