FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Opinion Number: 00-26 (Election) 1
Date of Issue: August 23, 2000

ISSUES

MAY A JUDICIAL CANDIDATE WHO HAS BEEN INVITED, ALONG WITH ALL OTHER JUDICIAL CANDIDATES, ATTEND A POLITICAL PARTY SOCIAL GATHERING AS THE GUEST OF THE PARTY FOR THE PURPOSE OF SOCIALIZING AND TALKING ONE ON ONE TO OTHER GUESTS, BUT NOT TO ADDRESS THE ENTIRE GATHERING?

ANSWER: No. Such conduct is not contemplated by Canon 7C(3).

FACTS

The inquiring judicial candidate, as well as other judicial candidates in the circuit, have been invited to attend a political party social gathering. The candidates will be the guests of the party and will be able to socialize and speak to other guests. The candidates will not, however, be afforded an opportunity to address the entire gathering at one time.

DISCUSSION

Over the years, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (Committee) has considered several inquiries concerning attendance at political party functions. In the interim, the Committee and the Supreme Court have attempted to fashion the language of Canon 7 so that its dictates will be quite specific in terms of partisan political activities. See, e.g., In re Code of Judicial Conduct, 675 So. 2d 111 (Fla. 1996). Nevertheless, questions continue to arise.

Years ago, the Committee decided that a judicial candidate may not go to the premises upon which a political party is holding a political meeting for the purpose of meeting and greeting delegates where the candidate, and others, have not been invited for the purpose of speaking on behalf of the candidacy. See Fla. JEAC Op. 90-16. Several years later, the Committee addressed an inquiry that built upon Opinion 90-16. In Opinion 96-20, the inquiring candidate wanted to attend partisan political meetings "which are open to the public." The candidate wanted to distribute campaign literature and speak one on one to attendees. The Committee unanimously agreed that Canon 7C(3) forbade such conduct. The Committee pointed out that such conduct "does not fit into an exception under which a judge or candidate may 'attend political party functions.'" Specifically, the Committee noted that the candidate had not been invited to speak on behalf of the candidacy on a matter that related to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice.

During the 1998 election cycle, the Committee stated that a candidate may attend a "candidate question and answer" forum and reception sponsored by a Young Republican Club. See Fla. JEAC Op. 98-17. Although not stated in that opinion, it appears the Committee was influenced by the fact that the candidate would, in effect, be speaking on the candidacy because the invitation contemplated that the candidate would "take part in the exchange of questions and answers."

The facts of the present inquiry quite candidly admit that no candidate will be afforded an opportunity to address the gathering. Guidance for such a situation is provided by the actual text of Canon 7C(3) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct:

A judicial candidate involved in an election or re-election, or a merit retention candidate who has certified that he or she has active opposition, may attend a political party function to speak in behalf of his or her candidacy or on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice. The function must not be a fundraiser, and the invitation to speak must also include the other candidates, if any, for that office. The candidate should refrain from commenting on the candidate's affiliation with any political party or other candidate, and should avoid expressing a position on any political issue. A judicial candidate attending a political party function must avoid conduct that suggests support or opposition to a political issue, or another candidate. Conduct limited to that described above does not constitute participation in a partisan political activity. (emphasis added).

Canon 7C(3) is an exception to the general proscription of Canon 7A(1)(d):

Except as authorized in sections 7B(2), 7C(2), and 7C(3), a judge or a judicial candidate for election or appointment to judicial office shall not . . . attend political party functions. . . .

The last sentence of Canon 7C(3) suggests, quite strongly, that only the conduct specifically allowed in 7C(3) will constitute an exception to the proscription of Canon 7A(1)(d). The Committee will, therefore, strictly construe Canon 7C(3).

The thrust of Canon 7C(3) is that a candidate may attend a political party function solely for the purposes enumerated in that section. These purposes are "to speak in behalf of his or her candidacy" or to speak "on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice." The Canon makes specific reference to an "invitation to speak." The Committee concludes that the informal social function envisioned by the present inquiry is not within the contemplation of Canon 7C(3). Accordingly, a judicial candidate may not attend this function.

REFERENCES

In re Code of Judicial Conduct, 675 So. 2d 111 (Fla. 1996).

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canons 7, 7C(3), 7A(1)(d).

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 90-16, 96-20 and 98-17.

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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 Judge Charles J. Kahn, Jr., Chairman, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 301 Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1850

Participating Members:
Judge Charles J. Kahn, Jr.
Judge Lisa D. Kahn
Judge Phyllis D. Kotey
Judge Scott J. Silverman

Copies furnished to:
Justice Peggy Quince
All Committee Members
All Members of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)

1The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has appointed an Election Practices Subcommittee. The purpose of this subcommittee is to give immediate responses to campaign questions in instances where the normal Committee procedure would not provide a response in time to be useful to the inquiring candidate or judge. Opinions designated with the "(Election)" notation are opinions of the Election Practices Subcommittee of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, and have the same authority as an opinion of the whole Committee.