FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2006-30
Date of Issue: December 8, 2006

ISSUES

May a sitting judge speak to various community groups including parent/teacher organizations regarding the dangers of online predators?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

                The inquiring judge wishes to speak to various community groups regarding the dangers faced by children who use the Internet.  The stated purpose and goals of the proposed presentation are to provide (1) information regarding the dangers of online predators, and (2) safety tips and procedures designed to protect children.  A review of the PowerPoint presentation, created by and provided to this Committee by the inquiring judge, reveals that the judge anticipates providing national and local statistics regarding the number of children using the Internet and their exposure to sexually explicit material and solicitation and/or harassment online.  The PowerPoint presentation then relates these statistics to actual incidents in the inquiring judge’s county and provides safety tips to parents and teachers regarding ways to protect children from these online dangers.  These safety tips outlined in the presentation have been prepared by NetSmartz and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
          The inquiring judge seeks this Committee’s advisory opinion as to whether he may make the proposed presentation to parent/teacher organizations and other community groups.

DISCUSSION

The inquiry poses two questions: (1) whether the inquiring judge may lecture to various community groups on the proposed subject, and (2) whether the contents of the lecture are acceptable.

Canon 4B of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides: “A judge is encouraged to speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in other quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, the administration of justice, and the role of the judiciary as an independent branch within our system of government, subject to the requirements of this Code.”  In Fla. JEAC Op. 97-26, the Committee concluded that a judge could teach a leadership or church law course at an accredited religious university, and in Fla. JEAC Op. 05-11, the Committee concluded that a judge could teach at a police academy located at a community college, as long as the teaching activities did not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially, demean the judicial office, or interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties.

Additionally, Canons 4B and 5B specifically encourage judges to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice by speaking, writing, lecturing, and teaching.  See Fla. JEAC Ops. 95-21 and 87-3 (finding no impropriety in a judge lecturing at legal seminars); Fla. JEAC Op. 82-06 (wherein the Committee concluded that a judge may lecture to a group of non-attorneys who were interested in landlord-tenant law); and Fla. JEAC Ops. 04-27, 00-05, 99-14, 95-37, 82-05, 78-12, and 76-17 (approving judges writing articles on a variety of topics).

As it appears that the contemplated presentation is within the scope of Canon 4B, the Committee finds no impropriety in addressing the proposed groups on the proposed topics.  We caution the inquiring judge, however, to be careful not to comment on pending cases, not to answer hypothetical questions in a way that appears to commit to a particular position, and not to make any other remarks that could lead to disqualification, or be construed as an indication as to how the judge would rule in a particular case.  See Fla. JEAC Ops. 05-11, 04-27, 00-02, and 99-14.

Regarding the specific content of the proposed presentation, this Committee has, in the elections context, adopted a steadfast policy not to vet specific material.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 06-18, we declined to address the propriety of answering each of the questions in a given questionnaire, and limited our opinion to providing general guidance as to the sort of answers or comments that are likely to run afoul of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 94-35, the Committee took the position that it should not approve or disapprove specific language of individual campaign advertisements, but rather, should provide the ethical provisions which judicial candidates must consider.  We now extend that policy to include the specific content of a speech, lecture, course, or written material, and decline to vet the PowerPoint presentation prepared by the inquiring judge.

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct: Canons 4B & 5B.

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 06-18, 05-11, 04-27, 00-05, 00-02, 99-14, 97-26, 95-37, 95-21, 94-35, 87-3, 82-06, 82-05, 78-12, 76-17.

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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 the judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and 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 Qualifications 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 Robert T. Benton, II, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 301  S. MLK Jr. Blvd. Tallahassee, FL 32399.

Participating Members:
Judge Robert T. Benton, II, Judge Michael Raiden, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge McFerrin Smith, Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr., Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy Vaccaro, Judge Jose Rodriguez, Judge T. Michael Jones, Marjorie Gadarian Graham, Esquire & Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire.


Copies furnished to:
Justice Peggy Quince
Thomas D. Hall, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator
Inquiring Judge (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)