A California Supreme Court ethics committee on Wednesday issued an expedited opinion providing guidance for judges who want to exchange gifts with court staff, cautioning that staff can’t be pressured into such exchanges.

“Giving and receiving gifts can be an important and meaningful way to develop good relationships between judges and court staff,” San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge George J. Abdallah, Jr., a member of the committee, said in a statement. “The committee’s advice can help judges identify, consider and weigh a number of factors when exchanging gifts, so that a well-intentioned gesture does not end up running afoul of the ethical canons.”

The four-page opinion from the Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions notes that acknowledging birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions with modest gifts can be an appropriate way to build morale among judges and their staff. But when giving gifts to courtroom staff, the opinion advises, “judges must take care that they show no bias or favoritism.”

“For example, judges should not give holiday gifts to different staff members that are significantly disproportionate,” the opinion states. “Similarly, judges should not celebrate the birthdays of certain of their staff while ignoring the birthdays of others.”

The committee advised that judges shouldn’t give any gifts that might pressure staff to reciprocate; be offensive, demeaning, or otherwise inappropriate; or be perceived as harassment. It also noted that judges should respect the fact that staff may come from different faiths and traditions, and to the extent “reasonably possible” should tailor gifts to align with their staff’s heritages and belief systems.

The opinion further advises that judges shouldn’t pressure courtroom staff to give a gift “even if such pressure is implicit,” adding that judges should take into account the power and financial imbalances between them and their staff and keep any gifts modest.

The opinion is the second the committee has issued this month. Last week, the committee advised that attorneys who work at law firms are temporarily prohibited from working in appellate court justices’ chambers, writing in its opinion that such work is considered an impermissible gift from the firm under the Code of Judicial Ethics.

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