Opinion No. 98-6
April 8, 1998
TOPIC: Judge writing a letter to the editor finding a judicial candidate "qualified."
DIGEST: A judge may not write a letter to the editor stating that a candidate for elective judicial office is "qualified."
REFERENCES: Illinois Supreme Court Rules 62 and 67A(1); Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee Opinion Nos. 94-11 and 96-15.
A non-judge candidate for judicial office has been found "not qualified" by a bar association. An associate judge candidate for the same elective office has been found "qualified" by the bar association. The non-judge candidate asks a judge, who is not a candidate for election or retention, to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper stating that both candidates for the judicial vacancy are qualified.
May a judge, who is not a candidate, write a letter to the editor stating that a candidate for judicial office is "qualified"?
Illinois Supreme Court Rule 67A(1) provides that a judge who is not a candidate for election or retention "shall not publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office." See Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee Opinion No. 94-11 (although a judge running for election or retention may publicly support other candidates, a judge, who is not a candidate may not publicly support candidates including judicial candidates).
The Committee is of the opinion that a public statement that a candidate is "qualified" for judicial office constitutes a prohibited endorsement.
To endorse means to "express definite approval or acceptance of; ... support or aid by or as if by signed statement." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, p. 749 (1986). A letter signed by a judge stating that a candidate is "qualified", certainly constitutes the judge's unequivocal approval and acceptance of the candidate's fitness for office. The fact that the judge is asked to find both candidates qualified does not change this result. Rule 67 prohibits a non-candidate judge from endorsing any judicial candidate. It is irrelevant whether the judge approves or sanctions one, some, or all of the candidates running for a particular office.
Further, permitting a letter to the editor of the nature contemplated would open the way for one or both candidates to prominently display in their campaign literature, a statement that a judge found the candidate "QUALIFIED". This certainly would be interpreted by the voting public as an endorsement.
Nor can a judge's act of finding a candidate "qualified" be taken out of the proscription of Rule 67 by characterizing the act as an "evaluation" or "rating" of the candidate rather than an endorsement. A positive evaluation or rating is simply an endorsement. See Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee Opinion No. 96-15. In any event, Rules 62A and 67 prohibit a non-candidate judge from participating in a public evaluation of judicial candidates. Id. (a judge may not serve as a member of the judicial evaluation committee of a civic organization)