FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2002-14
Date of Issue: June 28, 2002

JUDGE PARTICIPATING IN AN INDEPENDENT, STATE-REGISTERED AND REGULATED, POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE

ISSUES

WHETHER A CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE MAY PARTICIPATE IN AN INDEPENDENT, STATE-REGISTERED, AND REGULATED, POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE.

ANSWER: No. Because the committee is political in nature, does not relate to the improvement of the law, the legal system and the administration of justice, a judge's participation is proscribed by Canon 5C.

FACTS

This inquiry comes from a circuit court judge who questions whether it would be proper for him to participate in a Political Action Committee. The purposes of the committee are to oversee a campaign for proposed half penny sales tax to fund school repairs and new construction. The matter is expected to be placed on the ballot for the September election. The committee is responsible for fund- raising and conducting specific polls and focus groups to measure the level of voter support or opposition to the proposed tax. The inquiring judge recognizes that he may not participate in the fund-raising function of the committee but requests an opinion as to whether he may participate in the other functions of the committee including conducting polls and focus groups.

DISCUSSION

This Committee believes that the inquiring judge may not participate in the committee. Canon 5 regulates the instant matter. Canon 5C(2) provides that "A judge shall not accept appointment to a governmental committee or commission or other governmental position that is concerned with issues of fact or policy on matters other than the improvement of the law, the legal system or the administration of justice." The matter inquired about does not focus on the improvement of the law, legal system or administration of justice. Instead, while a commendable cause, the committee is nevertheless a political group created to campaign a political cause, that does not involve the administration of justice.

In Opinion 93-64, this Committee opined that it would be a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct for a judge to actively advocate for handgun control. Similarly, in Opinion 94-05, a matter somewhat correlative to the instant inquiry, this Committee opined that a judge may not sign a petition calling for a proposed constitutional amendment banning gill netting in state waters. The Committee expressed its concern with the judge signing the petition noting that while judges may vote, they are prohibited from publicly endorsing candidates. The Committee noted that by signing the petition the judge's vote would become public and could be mis-used. The Committee recognized that judges may take public positions on issues relating to improving the legal system or the administration of justice but with respect to the petition on banning gill netting noted that although the petition simply calls for placing the issue on the ballot, "from a practical standpoint, everyone knows that only the proponents of the ban favor placing the issue on the ballot." Opinion 94-05. The committee in question in this inquiry similarly would place the judge's position in the public eye. Moreover, the committee does not appear to be related to the legal system or its administration.

By comparison, in Opinion 98- 14, this Committee opined that a judge may address the electorate about proposed constitutional amendments "if they involve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice." The opinion went as far as to permit the individual judge, but not the circuit as an entity, to advocate or take a position regarding the amendments so long as the judges do not appear before partisan groups. See also Opinion 76- 16. Similarly, in Opinion 94-31, the Committee found that service on the District Juvenile Justice Board and local councils are permissible pursuant to Canon 4C because they are law related.

Accordingly, the Committee concludes that the inquiring judge should not participate in the Political Action Committee.

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 5C(2).

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion: 98-14, 94-31, 94-05, 93-64, 76- 16.

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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 The Honorable Scott J. Silverman, Chairman, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, The Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, 1351 NW 12th St #712, Miami, FL 33125

Participating Members: Judges Davidson, Kahn, Kotey, Levy, Silverman, Smith, Swartz, Thompson, Townsend and Attorney Graham

Copies furnished to:
Chief 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)