2021-2: A judge’s participation in a political party’s fundraising event as a guest of honor

IJEC Opinion No. 2021-2, as corrected                

DISCLAIMER:  This Opinion interprets the 1993 Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct, which was superseded on January 1, 2023, by the 2023 Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct.  This Opinion does not consider or address whether the 2023 Code affects the analysis or conclusion of the Opinion.  A table cross-referencing the 1993 Code to the 2023 Code can be found at IJEC CORRELATION TABLE.

Topic: Serving as a guest of honor at a political party’s fund-raising event.

Digest: Judicial candidates, including judges, may be guests of honor at a political party’s fund-raising event. A judge who is not a candidate for election or retention to judicial office may not be a guest of honor at a political party’s fund-raising event. 

References: Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 821 (2002) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting); Illinois Supreme Court Rules 65B, 67A, 67B, and 67C; Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee (IJEC) Opinion 1994-21 (1994); IJEC Opinion 03-01 (2003); IJEC Opinion 2021-3 (2021); Connecticut Committee on Judicial Ethics, Opinion 2010-02 (2010). 

Facts: A political party asks a judge to appear as a guest of honor at its fund-raising dinner. 


1.May a judge who is a candidate for election or retention to judicial office be a guest of honor at a political party’s fund-raising event?

2. May a judge who is not a candidate for election or retention to judicial office be a guest of honor at a political party’s fund-raising event?


The Illinois Code of Judicial Conduct recognizes the tension between the practical necessities of campaigning for elected judicial office and the societal goal of maintaining public confidence in a nonpartisan, apolitical judiciary. See Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U.S.765, 821 (2002) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (noting  a “fundamental tension between the ideal character of the judicial office and the real world of electoral politics”) (quoting Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380, 400 (1991)); IJEC Opinion 03-01 (2003); IJEC Opinion 2021-3 (2021). Balancing these competing interests, the Code establishes different permissible levels of political activity for judges when candidates for elective judicial office and for judges who are not candidates for elective judicial office. Understandably, judges running for election or retention are granted greater latitude in engaging in political activity.

Whether elected or appointed, Illinois judges may at all times purchase tickets for and attend political gatherings, identify as members of a political party, and contribute to political organizations. Rule 67B(1)(a); IJEC Opinion 1994-21 (1994). Once a candidate for public election or retention, the Code expands the judge-candidate’s permissible political activities to include: (1) speaking to political and other gatherings on the candidate’s own behalf; (2) appearing in media advertisements supporting the nomination, election, or retention of the candidate; (3) distributing campaign literature supporting the candidate; (4) publically endorsing or opposing other candidates in the same election; and (5) establishing a committee to raise funds and conduct other campaign activities. Rule 67B(1)(b); Rule 67B(2). The Code further identifies several activities so inimical to the foundational concept of an independent and impartial judiciary that they are barred regardless of whether a judge is a candidate for judicial office. Accordingly, the Code prohibits a judge, at any time, from acting as a leader or holding office in a political organization, personally soliciting campaign contributions, paying an assessment to a political organization, and “mak[ing] speeches on behalf of a political organization.” Rule 67A(1)(a)(c).

The increased involvement in the political process permitted for judges who are running for election is an unremarkable acknowledgement that Illinois elects judges in partisan elections. To prevail in a public election, candidates must solicit the support of political parties and the votes of their members. As a result, Rule 67B(1)(b)(i) expressly permits judicial candidates to speak at political gatherings. The Rule does not except gatherings that have a fund-raising purpose. Nor could it. Often judges are not privy to the financial aspects of a political gathering. Besides, political events that enjoy the largest attendance often have a fund-raising component. The inquiring judge, however, has been invited as a “guest of honor” at the fund-raising event rather than as a speaker which is authorized by Rule 67B(1)(b)(i). But “speaker” is certainly broad enough to include a guest of honor since honorees are commonly asked to say a few words at the event. Events at which honorees are not given a speaking role are even less problematic because the honorees’ prominence at the event is less than that of a featured or other speaker. Moreover, in the context of charitable, civic, educational, fraternal, and religious fund-raising events, the Code considers the roles of speaker and guest of honor as functional equivalents. See Rule 65B(2); Connecticut Committee on Judicial Ethics, Opinion 2010-02 (2010) (treating emcees, guests of honor, and speakers as “functional equivalents”). And while rules governing a judge’s participation in the charitable fund-raisers identified in Rule 65B(2) do not apply to political fund-raisers, there is no reason to treat the term “guest of honor” differently than the term “speaker” in either a charitable or political fund-raising context.

Judges not running for election or retention have far less need for self-promotion or engagement with partisan political groups and activities. The Code makes sure that this point is not lost on sitting judges. Rule 67C provides:

Incumbent Judges.  A judge shall not engage in any political activity except (i) as authorized under any other provision of this Code, (ii) on behalf of measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice, or (iii) as expressly authorized by law.

Rule 67B(1)(b)(i) recognizes that the realities of electoral politics require that campaigning judges speak at political gatherings including those with a fund-raising purpose. But obviously “electoral politics” play no role in the balancing of real world political practicalities against the public’s interest in maintaining confidence in the non-partisan nature of the judiciary when a judge is not campaigning for office. In other words, there is simply no campaign necessity to speak at a political fund-raiser when the speaker is not engaged in a political campaign.[1] 

[1] The Committee expresses no opinion on the propriety of a non-candidate judge speaking at a political party’s event that is not a fund-raiser. See Rule 67C.