Judges seem to have trouble when it comes to ethical decisions

They say — whoever “they” are — there are no dumb questions. “They” are wrong.

On a regular basis, judges and judicial candidates in Nevada seek ethical guidance by quizzing the Commission on Judicial Discipline’s Standing Commission on Judicial Ethics.

The judges and candidates should ask if they really don’t know the answer to their particular ethical dilemma. But it’s not awe inspiring that some don’t know the answer to seemingly basic and simple ethical questions.

I feel sorry for the 30 people — judges, attorneys and lay people — who break down into smaller panels to answer these questions.

Time after time, I read these advisory opinions at http://judicial.state.nv.us and ask: What judge or candidate is so clueless he/she doesn’t already know the answer?

Since the opinions do not reveal the name of the individual asking, I can’t name specifics . But some questions are so moronic, I answer them myself — and correctly usually — before looking at the opinion. It’s almost a test to see if I am right or wrong.

Let’s take the most recent opinion. A justice of the peace asked whether he/she can act as an informal adviser to a political organization. Is it different if the judge is a J.P. or a municipal court judge?

Well, duh. No. And no.

The three-page opinion politely explained that there is no difference between practicing law on a formal or informal basis and full-time judges cannot practice law. Also, judicial canons specifically say a judge “shall not act as a leader or hold office in a political organization.”

The J.P. who didn’t know that needs to read the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct canons. There’s only four.

Yet reviewing the list of advisory opinions shows question after question from judges who want to somehow engage in partisan politics, or want to use their judicial stationery for various reasons unrelated to their actual job.

Another easy one: May a judge, or a member of a judge’s staff, solicit and/or accept donations of cash, gift cards, or other merchandise to be used as incentives for participants in a court-administered drug program?

No way.

The canons prohibit judges or their staffs from soliciting money or merchandise no matter how worthy the cause.

Common sense should tell that judge it would be improper.

However, the opinion carved out an exception for the court’s administrative office to solicit. Maybe the judge was actually looking for a legal way to do what the judge shouldn’t.

Can a judge serve on a board of a homeowners’ association?

I said yes and so did the Judicial Ethics Committee, although it advised the J.P. it wouldn’t be right if the association is likely to engage in litigation that might come before a judge and the judge cannot act as the board’s legal adviser.

I don’t want to discourage judges from checking first. I understand the complications of a newly elected judge winding down a law practice and those questions seemed legit, as did many others.

But I cannot see why any judge would ask: May a judge use excess campaign funds to purchase a home security system?

I said no, and so did the ethics panel.

May a judge hire a relative as a law clerk?

Common sense says no, and there’s also specific language in the canons about avoiding nepotism.

It concerns me that certain judges and potential judges don’t have the smarts to figure out the ethical thing to do.

Judges make decisions about our lives, our families, our justice, our freedoms. If they can’t decide right and wrong for themselves, can we trust them to figure out right or wrong for us?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0275.