Code of Judicial Conduct

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A collection of rules governing the conduct of judges while they serve in their professional capacity.

The Code of Judicial Conduct was formulated by the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (ABA) in 1972. The code itself does not have the force of law, but federal and state governments have adopted it and use violations of its rules as the basis for punitive action against judges.

History of the Code

The first rules governing the conduct of judges in the United States were the Canons of

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Judicial Ethics, which were written in 1924 by an ABA committee chaired by WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, then chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to the promulgation of these canons, no cohesive framework existed to inform judges of the ethical obligations of their position. Judges were subject to removal, but only through the cumbersome, politicized procedures of congressional IMPEACHMENT, address, or recall.

A judge's leadership as the commissioner of professional BASEBALL helped provide the inspiration for the Canons of Judicial Ethics. In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to purposely lose the 1919 World Series in exchange for payments from bookmakers. To restore public faith in the professional baseball league, the owners of the teams, on November 12, 1920, asked prominent federal judge KENESAW MOUNTAIN LANDIS to be the game's new commissioner. Landis accepted the position, which he subsequently filled while simultaneously serving as a U.S. district court judge in the Northern District of Illinois. Landis helped restore professional baseball's integrity, but his highly publicized role as the sport's commissioner damaged the integrity of the judiciary. The ABA considered his simultaneous service as a federal court judge a conflict of interest, and it voted to censure Landis in 1921. Landis resigned from the bench on March 1, 1922. In 1924, in part as a response to the Landis affair, the ABA promulgated the Canons of Judicial Ethics to regulate the activity of judges.

The Canons of Judicial Ethics were criticized as being too vague to provide guidance in resolving important questions. Even the preamble revealed the canons to be nothing more than an ABA wish list:

The American Bar Association, mindful that the character and conduct of a Judge should never be objects of indifference, and that declared ethical standards tend to become habits of life, deems it desirable to set forth its views respecting those principles which should govern the personal practice of members of the Judiciary in the administration of their office. The Association accordingly adopts the following Canons, the spirit of which it suggests as a proper guide and reminder for judges, and as indicating what the people have a right to expect from them.

A majority of states adopted the canons or wrote their own based on the ABA version. Other states had their supreme courts write ADVISORY OPINIONS informed by the canons. Nevertheless, the canons were roundly criticized as ineffective and were replaced by the ABA in 1972 with the Code of Judicial Conduct.

The Current Code

The preface to the code stands in sharp contrast to the weak preamble of the canons. According to the preface, the Code of Judicial Conduct "states the standards that judges should observe. The canons and text establish mandatory standards unless otherwise indicated. It is hoped that all jurisdictions will adopt this Code and establish effective disciplinary procedures for its enforcement."

The code borrows much from the original canons. However, it is more specific and thus more enforceable. There...

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