California judges who belong to the Boy Scouts of America may have to remove themselves from cases involving gays under a rule approved Wednesday by the California Supreme Court.
Because the Scouting group bans gays, judges must disclose membership when it has "the potential to give an appearance of partiality," the court said in amending the state's Code of Judicial Ethics.
The court added language to the ethics code suggesting that judges disqualify themselves from cases where membership in an anti-gay group could be viewed as a conflict.
The court's action, taken in a closed session, pleased lawyer groups that had asked the court to reconsider whether judges should be allowed to belong to the Boy Scouts.
Angela Bradstreet, past president of the San Francisco Bar Assn., said the amendment will force judges to step down in cases involving gay lawyers, gay adoptions and anti-gay discrimination.
"If the attorneys are openly gay and the litigants are openly gay, this could be potentially an issue, and the judge under the amendment would have a duty to disclose his membership," Bradstreet said.
The Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judges from belonging to groups that discriminate against minorities, women and gays, but exempts nonprofit youth organizations.
Although several bar associations favored removing the exemption for Boy Scouts, the new requirement is still "a very positive step," Bradstreet said.
Miriam Krinsky, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., described the amendment as "heartening."
The change "will lead to more awareness of judicial membership in these organizations and more thought by the judges about whether they can remain on cases in light of membership in a discriminatory youth organization," Krinsky said.
A spokesman for the Boy Scouts could not be reached for comment.
Anthony Caso, senior vice president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group, said he was pleased that the court has not forced judges to resign from the Boy Scouts.
Bar groups "were trying to prohibit judges from being involved with the Boy Scouts at all," Caso said. "That the court declined to take that step is a very positive sign that judges don't have to withdraw from the community."
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled three years ago that the Boy Scouts is a private organization and cannot be forced by the government to accept gays.