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Ethics panel: Maryland judges should not attend Black Lives Matter events

The Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee released an opinion Wednesday saying that the state’s judges should not participate in events for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The opinion, which is nonbinding but considered a guideline for judges, states that participation in Black Lives Matter protests, marches or rallies “could cause a reasonable person to question a judge’s independence or impartiality,” given that they concern law enforcement and perceived shortcomings in the system of justice.

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Participation in a Black Lives Matter event presents a “significant risk” that the judge will end up in a situation that could undermine his or her impartiality, the opinion states.

The 13-person committee, made up mostly of Maryland judges, cited several provisions of the state’s code of judicial conduct as grounds for the decision, including a rule that states judges shall not “participate in activities that would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality.”

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The committee pointed out that Black Lives Matter events frequently feature signs and messages such as “Defund the Police” or “We Can’t Breathe.” A member of the judiciary would not likely be able to control how they are depicted in relationship to those messages, according to the committee.

“A depiction of a judge, on social media or otherwise, at an event with signs such as these, could lead a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality in cases involving the police,” the opinion states.

Maryland is the latest state to issue a ruling on whether judges can participate in large protests. The committee reviewed several similar rulings from across the country in determining its opinion.

In one ruling from June, a Connecticut judicial ethics committee told a judge that his participation in an event for black female attorneys could undermine his impartiality since other attendees were expected to wear “We Can’t Breathe buttons” referencing police abuse cases.

The Illinois Judges Association reached a different conclusion in 2019 and permitted judges to attend political gatherings. Still, the association advised that before attending such an event, the judge should investigate the agenda and evaluate the risk.

In 2018, the Arizona Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee warned that judges would be scrutinized and publicized at protests, but concluded that decisions concerning participation should be made on a case-by-case basis.

And a Massachusetts ethics committee prohibited judges’ participation in the 2017 “Women’s March on Washington.”

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