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I recently filed a petition in my county court. While I'm aware it's a routine proceeding for county judges, the judge's grant of my petition means a lot to me personally, and I would like to send a gift of flowers and a card as a token of my gratitude. Of course, I know there are restrictions regarding gifts to judges, designed to address impropriety and influence (or appearance thereof).

I came across the ABA's Model Code of Judicial Conduct: Canon 3 and the Guide to Jucidiary Policy; both seem to have exclusions, notably

“Gift” means any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other similar item having monetary value but does not include:

[...]

  • greeting cards and items with little intrinsic value, such as plaques, certificates, and trophies, which are intended solely for presentation

Furthermore, the Guide to Judiciary Policy also outlines (emphasis mine) that

A judicial officer or employee who has received a gift that cannot be accepted under these regulations should return any tangible item to the donor, except that a perishable item may be given to an appropriate charity, shared within the recipient's office, or destroyed.

My questions are thus:

  1. Would a bouquet of flowers constitute an item with "little intrinsic value" and or that is "intended solely for presentation"?

  2. If the answer to 1 is not a clear-cut and unconditional "yes", could I instead address the gift to the judge's office?

Such a bouquet would likely cost around $100, but mitigating factors (as I see them) include the facts that:

  1. Flowers are pretty much intended for presentation; according to two examples from the Cornell Legal Information Institute, even though some items might have a "market value" that could trigger restrictions, since they are primarily intended for presentation, they are acceptable, and

  2. The gift is being given after the judge's grant, rather than prior to it; I don't expect to be conducting any further business with my county court in the foreseeable future, and these restrictions are specifically applied to gifts from

[...] anyone who is seeking official action from or doing business with the court or other entity served by the judicial officer or employee, or from any other person whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the judicial officer’s or employee’s official duties.

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This is a somewhat tricky one. judges tend to be particularly sensitive to possibly improper gifts, so it is best to err on the side of caution—the low-value side. I would think a very pleasant floral gift could be obtained and delivered for much less than $100.

It may well be that a simple card or letter, in which you write a note explaining how much the judges action meant to you, would actually mean more to the judge than any amount of flowers. Since you don't know the judge personally, after all, you have no idea of his or her taste in flowers. Some people even have allergies. Or you might ask one of the clerks at the court what would be appropriate.

If your case or issue was still pending before the court, or you expected to appear again soon, such a gift would be a bad idea, in my view, although probably not actually illegal.

  • "although probably not actually illegal" - I'd not be too sure of that. Rules for accepting gifts are very strict in some jurisdictions. A gift with a value of $100 could well qualify as an attempted bribe, with serious criminal implications (depending on how zealous the district attorney is). I personally would not risk it. – sleske Jan 7 at 8:41
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    A card with a personal thank you, on the other hand, seems like a good solution. – sleske Jan 7 at 8:42
  • I was kinda hoping to do flowers and a card (and I'm done with the court with no further need/desire/expectation to go back any time soon). Maybe I can check with the judge's office about allergies and the like, and address the flowers to their office, with a personal card for the judge themselves? – Doktor J Jan 8 at 20:38
  • A gift of flowers from someone with no pre-existing relationship with a judge would put the judge in a difficult and awkward position. The suggestion of a simple card or letter is a good one and there is a well established process in the courts for dealing with ex parte written communications to judges from someone who was in a case. – ohwilleke Feb 12 at 7:14
  • In Government, most agencies have an internal policy that caps the value of the gifts they are allowed to accept, especially when they have a decision making power. Most of the time, the cap is around $10-$15. Knowing what state the judge is operating in (or Federal, but this doesn't sound like a Fed) so it would be best to look at the state's specific rules. When all else fails, call the judge's office and ask to speak to his clerk/secretary (not sure if it's a separate role or dual hatted) and ask for acceptable gifts. – hszmv Feb 12 at 12:56
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Flowers would constitute a perishable gift with more than "little intrinsic value". And, realistically couldn't be given to a charity in a timely fashion (the paradigmatic case for that would things like Christmas wreaths).

The paradigmatic case for "sharing around the office" would be a tray of cookies, or a small basket of sweets or fruit. But, for example, when I was an intern in Congress, pro-life groups would distributed roses to every office in Congress and every office in the judiciary and the executive branch that they could manage, and passing those roses out to the law clerks, office staff and cleaning staff would probably be an acceptable approach in that case.

Flowers would be problematic precisely because it involves gratitude for a judicial function, much like a tip for a waiter, and while your individual case by itself may not seem like a big deal, it would be a problem if an expectation developed that one would provide a small gift to a judge every time a judge ruled in your favor, even in routine uncontested matters. Many judges have case loads in the thousands of cases a year, so it wouldn't take much for this to add up.

A card or letter would really be more proper.

(Of course, people with pre-existing relationships with judges, like family or college roommates or boyfriends can give gifts to judges, but this is precisely because the judge has not taken any official action concerning these people, so it is not out of gratitude for official actions taken by the judge.)

Basically, the only people to whom gifts can be made who hold offices in the judicial branch are to those people with no decision making authority or influence on someone with decision making authority, such as a bailiff, security line officer, general court house clerk (as opposed to a clerk assigned to a particular judge), court reporter, or cleaning staff. This is O.K. only up to about $50, but could be in gratitude for something like being especially kind when your skirt ripped and they found you a loaner, or holding your baby while you filled out a form, or something like that (i.e. something beyond the narrow scope of their official duties).

  • I was going to suggest an Edible Arrangement, which combines the prettiness of flowers with the tastiness of fruit and chocolate and is usually too big for just one person to eat, so can be shared with the office. But again, reach out to the clerk/secretary of the judge and ask what is appropriate... heck, you wouldn't want to send flowers to one guy in the court house who has allergies. – hszmv Feb 12 at 13:00

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