Ethics Issues for Judicial Families

by Rick L. Brunner, Esq.
Chair, Ohio Judicial Family Network Steering Committee (2003-2004)
Chair, Ohio Judicial Family Network Ethics Subcommitttee (2002-2003)

One of the most useful aspects of the Ohio Judicial Family Network is the opportunity to meet other judicial spouses and learn from our shared experiences, joys and missteps. This is useful in many aspects of judicial family life but probably not any more than in the area of ethics for judicial spouses and family members. We have discussed ways of handling ethical conflicts and have had the sympathetic ear of others "who have been there." On March 6, 2002, spouses of recently elected and appointed judges and their mentors met with ethics experts Jonathan Marshall, secretary to the Board of Commissioners on Grievance and Discipline, and David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission.

What follows are some thoughts following the March program, "How Not To Put Your Foot In Your Mouth," about how to make the rules of judicial ethics manageable and how to apply them to common events.

When our spouse or family member was elected or appointed to his or her judicial office, each of us had our own corner of the world turned upside down. Some aspects of this change are as unique as our individual families, but others are very much common experiences. One change is new to almost all of us: the Code of Judicial Conduct will begin to regulate our lives.

Although we as spouses and family members are not bound by the Code and are not subject to discipline or sanctions, our actions and our involvement in the community are very much regulated by the fact that we are married to or live with a judge. The Code of Judicial Conduct restricts judges in their actions both on and off the bench, and since the actions we take as family members or spouses of a judge can have a direct impact upon the judge, we must be aware of the consequences. This is why we must know the requirements of the code.*

Most of us cannot memorize the Code of Judicial Conduct or carry it around with us to consult it in our everyday activities. In my own dealings, I try to keep in mind three simple paraphrases. These three "rules of thumb" are:

  1. The judge needs to be impartial at all times concerning any matter that may come before the court.
  2. The judge may not use the judicial office to gain benefit for the judge or the judge's family.
  3. The judge cannot use the court for any personal promotion or for any purpose other than what the judge is charged by law to do with the position.

Although it is wise for all of us to attempt to familiarize ourselves with the Code of Judicial Conduct, remembering these three simple rules can help navigate most of the tricky situations. Here are just a few examples of how we may apply these three rules in circumstances we are likely to encounter as the spouse or family member of a judge.

These examples do not exhaust the type or variety of ethical issues we will encounter as judicial family members or spouses, but they help show how our activities must change now that we are members of a judge's household.

The Ohio Judicial Family Network Mentor Program, initiated in October 2000, offers role-related support and psychosocial support to the partners of newly elected and appointed judges. The mentors, partners of experienced judges, are matched with mentees using the following criteria: gender, community size (urban or rural) and, if possible, court jurisdiction.

*These issues are paraphrased from "Ethical Issues for Judicial Families," Justice Randy J. Holland, Delaware Superior Court, Conference of Chief Justices, Jan. 24, 2001.

Rick Brunner is married to Jennifer Brunner, Ohio Secretary of State and former Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge. They are the parents of three children.

For information about the Advisory Committee on the Judicial Family Network, please contact Judicial Services Program Manager Alyssa Guthrie, Supreme Court of Ohio, 614.387.9467.