These summaries were prepared by McGuireWoods LLP lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. They are based on the letter opinions issued by the Virginia State Bar. Any editorial comments reflect Mr. Spahn's current personal views, and not the opinions of the Virginia State Bar, McGuireWoods or its clients. 
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19-Judge Conflicts

Judges must disqualify themselves where "their impartiality might reasonably be questioned." ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct 2.11(A), lists specific family relationships that automatically meet that standard, but that rule does not provide any guidance on other personal relationships with lawyers that would require their disqualification. Judges must "avoid even the appearance of impropriety in performing their duties," but "are presumed to be impartial." Possible grounds for disqualification is "evaluated against an objective reasonable person standard," and "judicial disqualification is the exception rather than the rule." Personal relationships that might or might not require disqualification can be separated into three categories: (1) acquaintanceships; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships. First, judges have no obligation to disclose their relationship with a party or lawyer who is an "acquaintance." These persons' "interactions outside of court are coincidental or relatively superficial." "[N]either the judge nor the lawyer seeks contact with the other, but they greet each other amicably and are cordial when their lives intersect." Second, judges should disclose (but have discretion to continue presiding over a case if a party objects to the judge's presiding) if one of the parties or lawyers meets the "friendship" standard. That relationship "implies a degree of affinity greater than being acquainted with a person; indeed, the term connotes some degree of mutual affection." Those meeting this standard might include former law colleagues who occasionally meet for a meal, or law school classmates who occasionally communicate with each other. A closer friendship exists if judges and parties or lawyers exchange holiday gifts, "regularly socialize together," regularly interact "because their children are close friends"; "vacation together"; etc. Depending on the degree of friendship, judges may or may not have to disqualify themselves. Third, judges may have to disqualify themselves they have a "close personal relationship" with a party or lawyer. Examples include a romantic involvement (or a desire for such an involvement), a cordial relationship with a divorced spouse, the judge's acting as a "godparent" of a lawyer's or party's child, or vice versa. Judges must disqualify themselves if they have a romantic relationship with a lawyer or party (or desire such a relationship). Judge should "disclose other intimate or close personal relationships" with a party or a lawyer, but have the discretion "to either continue to preside over the proceeding or disqualify himself or herself." In that situation, judges "should put the reasons for the judges' decision to remain on the case or to disqualify himself or herself on the record." Judges subject to possible disqualification "based on a friendship or close personal relationship with a lawyer or party" may seek the parties' waiver of disqualification. Such a waiver "must be put on the record of the proceeding."

Copyright 2000, Thomas E. Spahn