Ethics panel says judges can join NRA

Gun Rights

The New York State Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics has issued an opinion that a judge can be a member of the National Rifle Association, after concluding that the group is not a purely political organization.

A judge asked the court system’s advisory panel if he must cancel the lifetime membership in the NRA, which was purchased before taking office.

Ethics opinions issued by the Committee do not identify the judge making the inquiry or the court where they work.

“The NRA’s website suggests that it is a not-for-profit organization that engages in extensive litigation, lobbying and political activity.  The website explicitly states that membership dues and contributions are not tax deductible,” the Committee wrote in the opinion.

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Under the state’s rules of conduct, a judge may not engage in any political activity, unless an exception applies. And the rules forbid a judge from being a member of a political organization other than enrollment and membership in a political party, the Committee wrote.

Under the rules, a “political organization” is defined as a “political party, political club or other group, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office.”

The Committee previously defined a framework for a judge to evaluate an organization’s activities. If a not-for-profit entity engages in some clearly permissible activities for judges, along with some potentially controversial lobbying, advocacy and litigation activities, a judge may not get involved in the litigations, publicly associate themselves with the organization’s positions on matters of public controversy or assume a leadership role in the group.

“Taking a leadership role in such organizations may publicly associate the judge with organizational positions on matters of public controversy, in a way that simple membership does not,” the Committee wrote.

A judge can be a “regular member” of such organizations, if they are not “political organizations” under the Rules, according to the opinion.

If the NRA is considered a “political organization” for judicial ethics purposes, a judge may not be a member, the Committee wrote.

Sometimes, the Committee has left it to the judge to determine whether an entity is a “political organization” under the rules to determine if they can be a member.

“When we do make this determination for the inquiring judge, we often name the organization so that all judges will have the same guidance.  For example, our prior opinions have established that entities such as Emily’s List, Indivisible, J Street, and are ‘political organizations” under the rules,” the Committee wrote.

Often organizations that engage in extensive political activity also have substantial non-political purposes, according to the Committee.

For example, Planned Parenthood, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the NRA all engage in a similarly broad range of activities. The Committee previously permitted membership in Planned Parenthood and the NYCLU.

In that opinion, the Committee noted that both entities engaged in a variety of activities with which a judge could be associated, such as education about the Bill of Rights and women’s health counseling. And those activities served as a basis for determining that membership would not constitute impermissible political conduct.

The NRA’s website emphasizes political activism, but that’s not the group’s sole purpose, the Committee noted.

“The website also details the NRA’s substantial interests in promoting gun safety and gun education. Given the wide scope of the NRA’s non-political activities in education and safety, we decline to deem the NRA as a group whose “principal purpose … is to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office,” the Committee wrote.

The Committee acknowledged that the NRA is involved in a wide range of activity, and some are off-limits to judges.

“The judge must, of course, avoid impermissible political activity and may not assume a leadership role in the NRA.  However, nothing currently before us suggests that mere membership in the NRA associates the judge with matters of controversial lobbying, advocacy, or litigation sufficient to implicate the integrity of the judiciary and require the judge’s resignation.”

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