FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2003-10
Date of Issue: June 17, 2003

JUDGE ACCEPTING A FREE GOLF MEMBERSHIP FROM A VERY CLOSE FAMILY FRIEND WHOSE INVOLVEMENT IN ANY CASE WOULD RESULT IN DISQUALIFICATION.

ISSUES

May a judge accept a free golf membership from a very close family friend whose involvement in any case would cause the judge to disqualify himself or herself?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The inquiring judge states that a very close family friend with ties to a local upscale golf club has offered the judge a free golf membership. The free membership is worth several thousand dollars. The judge states that he or she regularly plays golf with a member of this family. The judge is mindful of Opinion 92-15A. However, after a close reading, the judge wonders if there is any distinction between the Opinion 92-15A and present Canon 5D(5)(e). Finally, the judge states that he or she would, in any event, disqualify himself or herself in any case in which this family was involved due to the close social ties.

DISCUSSION

Canon 5D(5) states in pertinent part:

A judge shall not accept, and shall urge members of the judge's family residing in the judge's household not to accept a gift, bequest, favor or loan from anyone except for:

(e) a gift, bequest, favor or loan from a relative or close personal friend whose appearance or interest in a case would in any event require disqualification under Canon 3E;

(h) any other gift, bequest, favor or loan, only if: the donor is not a party or other person who has come or is likely to come or whose interest have come or are likely to come before the judge; and, if its value, or the aggregate value in a calendar year of such gifts, bequests, favors, or loans from a single source, exceeds $100.00, the judge reports it in the same manner as the judge reports gifts under Section 6B(2).

In Opinion 92-15A, six of the ten participating members opined that a judge was prohibited from accepting a free membership in a golf course where the judge was the only judge in the circuit to whom the gift membership had been offered. The minority members agreed with Opinion 83-5 which distinguished the acceptance of the gift by an offering to only one judge versus an offering to several public officials. Fla. JEAC Op. 92-15A. However, in Opinion 97-27, this Committee receded from Opinion 92-15A and opined that a judge may accept a gift membership to a United States Air Force Officers' Club in accordance with the exceptions of Canon 5D(5) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. This Committee cited Opinion 83-5 in which it stated that "an individual gift, to an individual judge is proper." Fla. JEAC Op. 97-27. Furthermore, in Opinion 83-5, this Committee unanimously held that "[t]here is no restriction on a judge accepting a gift, even a very valuable gift, so long as Canon 5C(4)(e) is complied with and the gift is offered to him only."

The distinction between these opinions and Canon 5D(5)(e) is that a gift received under the latter is not required to be disclosed. Canon 6B(2) states that "[a] judge shall file a public report of all gifts which are required to be disclosed under Canon 5D(5)(h) of the Code of Judicial Conduct." In Opinion 91-7, this Committee explained that a judge does not have to disclose gifts from relatives that fell under former Canon 5C(4)(b), which is virtually the same as current Canon 5D(5)(c)-(g). In Opinion 94-18, this Committee reaffirmed that gifts falling under former Canon 5C(4)(b) need not to be reported; only gifts falling under former Canon 5C(4)(e), which is virtually the same as current Canon 5D(5)(h). See also Fla. JEAC Op. 97-27 (holding that prior opinions interpreting Canon 5C(4)(e), the predecessor to Canon 5D(5)(h), are helpful in responding to the query).

This Committee notes that the non-disclosure of the free golf membership is contrary to Opinion 93-12. However, Opinion 93-12 was rendered when former Canon 5C(4)(b) was in effect which did not include an exception for gifts from a close personal friend as Canon 5D(5)(e) currently does. As such, this Committee recedes from Opinion 93-12 to the extent that it is contradictory to Canon 5D(5)(e).

In Opinion 02-20, the Committee recently summarized the application of Canon 5D(5) as follows:

[G]ifts described in (a) through (g) of 5(D)(5) need not be reported. The Judge must only report gifts that fall under the provisions of Canon 5D(5)(h), if the aggregate value exceeds $100.00, rather than every gift received from the spouse, children, siblings, and close personal friends.

The judge may accept the free golf membership from the judge's close family friend since it is offered to the judge individually, and is a gift from the friend, not from the golf club. Also, the judge is not required to disclose this gift membership as it falls under the provisions of Canon 5D(5)(e).

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canons 5D(5)(e) and (h), and 6B(2).

Fla. JEAC Op. 83-5,
Fla. JEAC Op. 91-7
Fla. JEAC Op. 92-15A
Fla. JEAC Op. 93-12
Fla. JEAC Op. 94-18
Fla. JEAC Op. 97-27
Fla. JEAC Op. 02-20.

_____________

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 Phyllis D. Kotey, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Eighth Judicial Circuit, Alachua County Courthouse, 201 East University Avenue, Room 205, Gainesville, Florida 32601.

Participating Members:
Judge Jeffrey D. Swartz, Judge McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Charles J. Kahn, Jr., Judge Phyllis Kotey, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr., Judge Scott J. Silverman, Judge Melanie May and Ervin Gonzalez, Esquire.


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)