May a Magistrate Judge Ethically “Dance With the Stars”?

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Yes, according to South Carolina's Advisory Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct:


A full-time magistrate inquires as to the propriety of dancing in a fund-raising event that is similar to a popular television show ("Dancing with the Stars"), in which the judge’s religious institution is the recipient of the funds. The judge will be one of five dancers from the congregation performing with a dance professional from a local studio. The judge will not personally solicit donations, and all monies raised go directly to the religious organization….


A full-time magistrate judge may participate as a dancer in a fund-raiser for a religious organization where the judge does not personally solicit donations or allow the organization to use the prestige of the judge’s office in fund-raising efforts.

Judges are of course allowed to be members and even officers or directors of non-profit organizations, but the concern here has to do with judicial fund-raising efforts. As you can imagine, in certain circumstances it could be very difficult, or at least feel very difficult, to tell a judge "no" when he or she asks for money, and so rules of judicial conduct generally restrict judges' ability to do that kind of thing. Under South Carolina's rule, for example, a judge can assist the organization with fund-raising but shall not "personally participate" in soliciting money or membership, or permit the prestige of his or her office to be used for that purpose.

Here, the judge apparently wanted to make sure that to dance as one of the "stars" in a fundraiser would not constitute "personal participation" in the sense meant by the rule. He or she was probably asking out of an abundance of caution, because I don't think anyone would consider this "personal solicitation" unless the judge was planning to dance over to people and hold his or her hat out for donations. (I personally would pay just to see that, but hey—it's against the rules.) In the absence of any such facts, at least, the committee said this would be okay.

It did caution the inquiring judge that he or she must still "abide by all other provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct," citing among other things Canon 1, which "requires a judge to maintain high standards of conduct in all of the judge's activities…." Take some dance lessons if necessary, in other words (reading between the lines), and don't embarrass the office.

I believe this is only the second (or third) mention of "Dancing With the Stars" on this blog, both previous mentions having to do with the appearance on that show of a certain former Speaker of the U.S. House. See "Next on 'Dancing With the Stars': Tom DeLay" (Aug. 18, 2009); see also "Dancing With the Indicted" (Dec. 5, 2010) (noting that DeLay was convicted on conspiracy and money-laundering charges, in addition to being a crappy dancer). There were no ethical rules precluding DeLay from participating in that event, of course, not that it would have mattered.