Courtroom Hotline For Ethical Questions

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WHEN a judge's former law partner walks into court to defend the judge's neighbor, the magistrate now has a phone number to call for the answers to ethical quandaries that aren't in the law books.

"On a legal issue, it's one thing, because you're talking in the abstract, but ethical concerns are tougher for judges to talk about, even to each other," says Patricia Bobb, who sits on the newly formed Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee.

The committee of six lawyers and six judges offers nonbinding opinions for all sorts of sticky issues: cases involving former law associates, judges with real-estate investments, those who sit on the boards of nonprofit organizations, and those campaigning for election.

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Since the committee's formation in December, more than 35 judges across Illinois have called for help.

Each call is referred to a committee member. If a telephone discussion fails to resolve the problem, the issue is brought to the panel's bimonthly meeting, where members research written opinions and relevant laws and send back a report.

"Judges want to be ethical," says Steve Lubet, who teaches judicial ethics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "The overwhelming number of ethics violations are unintentional. This is a way to check to make sure they're doing the right thing." The committee is funded by the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois Judges Association.

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