FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Opinion Number: 2000-18
Date of Issue: September 11, 2000
May a circuit court judge submit a written letter to Mothers Against Drunk
Driving nominating a misdemeanor Judge and a felony Judge to receive an honor
for "making our streets and highways safer"?
This inquiry comes from a circuit court judge. The inquiry concerns a letter sent to the judge by a chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving ("MADD") about an upcoming awards ceremony. In relevant part, the letter states:
The mission of Mothers Against Drunk Driving is to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking.
MADD ________ County would like to honor a misdemeanor and a felony judge from __________ County who has contributed to making our streets and highways safer. This is our time to recognize their efforts and to thank them for a job well done.
We invite you to submit, in writing, the names of these judges, along with one or two sentences stating why they are deserving of this honor ...
The inquiring judge wishes to know whether the judge may submit a written letter to MADD nominating fellow judges for the honor. The inquiring judge is concerned that making such a nomination would violate the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.
It is unclear whether MADD's awards ceremony is intended to be a fundraiser. If the event is a fundraiser, this Committee need look no further than Canon 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Specifically, Canon 4D(2)(d) provides:
A judge as an officer, director, trustee or non-legal advisor, or as a member or otherwise: (d) shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fundraising or membership solicitation. (emphasis added).
The Commentary to Canon 4D(2) further explains that "[a] judge must not be a speaker or guest of honor at an organization's fundraising event." (emphasis added).
Under said Canon, it is quite clear that, if MADD's awards ceremony is a fundraising event, the inquiring judge is precluded from nominating fellow judges for the honor. For similar reasons, the nominated judges are also precluded from accepting an honor at the event.
Assuming that the event is not a fundraiser, this Committee must conduct a further analysis to answer the inquiring judge's question. In general, Canon 4 allows a judge to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice. With this in mind, the Committee has found that a judge may nominate an attorney for the position of delegate to the American Bar Association. See Opinion 79-6. This Committee has also found that a judge may nominate an attorney for a judicially created professionalism award. See Opinion 99-18. In reaching these opinions, however, the Committee first weighed the judge's interest in improving the law, the legal system and the administration of justice against the admonishment in Canon 2B that "[a] judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others." It was only after the Committee conducted this analysis and determined that Canon 2B provided no obstacle that the Committee found that the inquiring judge could make the respective nominations. We shall conduct the same analysis.
In the instant matter, the inquiring judge has been asked to submit a written letter to MADD nominating a misdemeanor Judge and a felony Judge to receive an honor for "making our streets and highways safer." By previous opinion, this Committee has found that the purpose of MADD is to eliminate drunk driving through education, legislation and litigation. In particular, the Committee has found that MADD "hopes to bring pressure on the Legislature to enact stronger laws, and on the courts through court-watching programs, etc." See Opinion 82-18. These findings are supported by the letter sent by MADD to the inquiring judge which states that the mission of MADD "is to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking." We, therefore, assume that MADD intends to utilize the awards ceremony in which the honor will be bestowed to further the aforementioned goals. Based on these factors and the particular facts of this inquiry, the Committee cannot come to the conclusion that the inquiring judge's interest in improving the law, the legal system and the administration of justice as it pertains to drunk driving can overcome the admonishment outlined in Canon 2B. In the Committee's opinion, if the inquiring judge were to submit any nominations for the honor to MADD, the judge would be lending the prestige of his/her judicial office to advance the private interests of MADD 1 The honor in question has clearly been designed to award judges for assessing harsh punishments to drunk drivers and keeping them off the streets. Thus, in effect, MADD wishes to hold the honored judge out to the public as an example to further its cause. While the goals of MADD are laudable, Canon 2B requires that judges not allow such an organization to use the prestige of the judicial office to advance its private interests.
For similar reasons, the Committee finds that Canon 2B precludes the nominated judges from accepting this particular honor from MADD. The acceptance of an award, that has admittedly been designed to recognize judges from punishing drunk drivers, lends the prestige of the judicial office to MADD so that MADD may advance its private interests. Moreover, Canon 4A(1) states that a judge may only engage in outside activities so long as they do not "cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge." In the Committee's opinion, the acceptance of an award designed for such purpose, from an admittedly proactive interest group, would cast reasonable doubt on the accepting judges' impartiality in all future drunk driving matters that come before those judges.
Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canons 2B, 4A(1), and 4D(2)(d).
Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 79-6, 82-18, 95-41, and 99-18.
The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and to the judiciary at large. Conduct that is consistent with an advisory opinion issued by the Committee may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions by the Committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So.2d 834 (Fla. 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualification Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. Id.
For further information, contact The Honorable C. McFerrin Smith, III, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 130 West New York Avenue, DeLand, Florida, 32720.
Participating Members: Graham, Attorney at Law, Judges C. Kahn, L. Kahn, Kotey, Levy, Silverman, Smith, Swartz, Thompson and Townsend.Copies furnished to:
1 This Committee has previously found that the mere attendance by a judge at a MADD candlelight vigil does not run afoul of the Code of Judicial Conduct. See Opinion 95-41. However, said opinion was rendered based primarily on the fact that the inquiring judge was merely attending the vigil and that the vigil was of a non-advocatory nature, i.e., the vigil did not call for harsher penalties for drunk driving. Thus, we find no conflict between Opinion 95-41 and our present opinion.