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Opinion 30

The Judicial Qualifications Commission has been requested to render an opinion as to whether it would be proper for a Judge of the Superior Court to write a letter to a State or Federal parole board with respect to a prisoner, making recommendations concerning the granting or denial of a parole.

Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides:

Judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities.

Rule 1.1 Complying With the Law

Judges shall respect and comply with the law.

Rule 1.2 Promoting Public Confidence in the Judiciary

(A) Judges shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.

Rule 2.4 External Influences on Judicial Conduct

. . . 

(B) Judges shall not permit family, social, political, financial, or other interests or relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.

(C) Judges shall not convey or enable others to convey the impression that any person or organization is in a position to influence the judge.

Commentary [2] under Rule 1.2 provides:

Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct of judges. Judges must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. Judges must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. Judges must therefore accept restrictions on their conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen, and they should do so freely and willingly.

The testimony of a judge as a character witness injects the prestige of his office into the proceeding in which he testifies and may be misunderstood to be an official testimonial. This Canon, however, does not afford him a privilege against testifying in response to an official summons.

Subject to the exceptions noted below, it is the opinion of the Commission that it would be an impropriety, and a violation of the Canon referred to above, for a Superior Court Judge to write a letter to or otherwise communicate to a parole board, making recommendations concerning the granting or denial of a parole to a prisoner. The writing of such a letter by a judge, based merely on his acquaintance with the prisoner, appears rather closely analogous to the voluntary giving of testimony by a judge as a character witness in judicial proceedings, action which the above quoted commentary under Rule 1.2 describes as injecting the prestige of the judge’s office into the proceeding in which he testifies and as subject to being misunderstood as an official testimonial.

In the normal situation it does not appear that a Superior Court Judge, even though he might be rather closely acquainted personally with the prisoner involved, could supply any relevant information to the parole board which would not be readily available from other sources. Thus, no necessity would exist for his communicating to the parole board his views and recommendations concerning the prisoner, and his action in doing so might be interpreted by the parole board members and staff as an effort to use the authority and prestige of his office to cause a parole to be granted or denied.

However, an exception might exist in a case where the Superior Court Judge presided at the trial resulting in the prisoner’s conviction, and imposed the sentence which he is serving. In this situation, the judge might be possessed of information derived from presiding at the trial, not readily available to the parole board from the record of the trial or other sources, and his views and impressions might be helpful to the parole board in reaching a proper decision. For this reason, it is the opinion of the Commission that it would not be an impropriety for the judge who presided at the trial and sentenced the prisoner to write a letter to or otherwise communicate with a parole board, expressing his views as to whether the prisoner should be granted a parole, based specifically on information, impressions and observations derived from his having presided at the trial of the case resulting in the prisoner’s sentence. See, in this connection, Ga. Code Sec. 77-516.1.

It is also the opinion of the Commission that it would not be improper for a Superior Court Judge, whether or not he was the sentencing judge, to respond to a specific request from a parole board for information or for an expression of his views concerning a matter relating to its consideration of whether a parole should be granted to a prisoner.

[Pertinent Code of Judicial Conduct provisions: Rules 1.2(B), 2.4(B), 2.4(C), 2.13(A)(2), 3.7(A)(2). Cross reference to other relevant opinions for review: #9, #63, #64.]

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