No more “Once a Judge Always a Judge”

Update: The Supreme Court of Ohio effectively overruled this opinion in new amendments to Rule 8.2 of the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct.  Read about that here.

I haven’t been a judge in a long time, yet many people still call me Judge Bettman.  I appreciate the courtesy, but I don’t think of myself that way.  It was a wonderful job I had many years ago, but I now think of myself and call myself the law professor I have been for more than a decade.

Well, it seems that the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline has taken up the issue of the use of judicial titles for former judges, since lawyers and judges are operating under a different set of rules than when this issue was last addressed. The exact question presented to the Board was whether it is appropriate for former judges to use judicial titles after leaving the bench? The Commission has just released Opinion 2013-3, a fourteen page opinion which dramatically limits the use of the title “judge” for former judges.  Its conclusion: “the adage “once a judge, always a judge,” has no basis in the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct or the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct. Or in today’s society. In general, a former judge should not refer to himself or herself using a judicial title.

Here are some highlights of the opinion:

  • Former judges who return to the private practice of law cannot use a judicial title in the practice of law. “When a lawyer leaves judicial office, regardless of the reason, and returns to the practice of law, the lawyer is no longer a judge,” says the opinion.

That makes sense. The title appears to give the once-judge-now-lawyer an unfair advantage or the appearance of greater influence. This is especially so if the once-judge-now-lawyer appears in a court proceeding before a current judge. But the ban applies to any law related services; not just in the courtroom. And it also applies to “other businesses that are distinct from the practice of law, government or other public sector work, and in charity or community service activities.”  The thinking here is that since a former judge isn’t a judge anymore, the title isn’t “needed for identification purposes. Invariably, the use of a judicial title outside of judicial service is for personal gain or advantage or to create a benefit or recognition for another.”

  • Retired judges who are given a specific temporary assignment by the Chief Justice can use judicial titles, but only within the context of that assignment.
  • It is perfectly ok for a former judge to state on a resume or bio that he or she was a judge. Factual statements about prior judicial service are acceptable, but use of the title in the bio would not be.
  • It’s ok if lawyers, friends, acquaintances, or strangers call a former judge by title due to “habit, customs of etiquette, or a prior relationship.” But the practice should not be encouraged.

There is more in the opinion, but I’ve summarized what I consider the important points.

Professor Bettman

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