FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee
Opinion Number: 2007-11
Date of Issue: July 16, 2007
Is disqualification required in all cases in which the sheriff’s department is involved when a family member of the judge is employed by the department?
The Inquiring Judges have family members who are salaried employees with the local sheriff’s department. The spouse of one of those Inquiring Judges is a detective with the sheriff’s department. The son of the other Inquiring Judge is a deputy with the same agency.
Canon 3E(1)(c), Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, states that a judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances where the judge’s spouse, parent, or child wherever residing, has an economic interest in a party to the proceeding.
The Code of Judicial Conduct defines “economic interest” in the definitions section of the Code, as “ownership of a more than de minimis legal or equitable interest, or a relationship as officer, director, advisor, or other active participant in the affairs of a party.”
That the Inquiring Judges’ family members are employed with the local sheriff’s department does not in and of itself create grounds for disqualification. The family members have only a de minimis interest and no ownership interest in the agency since their salaries would be a tiny fraction of the overall budget of any sheriff’s agency. As long as the family members have no direct financial interest in the outcome of the matter, disqualification is not required pursuant to this section of the Code.
This relationship is analogous to that in JEAC Opinion 2003-08. There the Committee opined that disqualification was not required in all criminal cases where the judge’s spouse was a “Child Victim Specialist” in the State Attorney’s Office. In that case, the judge’s spouse was a salaried employee with the State Attorney’s Office, a similar situation to the instant set of facts. That opinion is consistent with JEAC Opinion 97-25, which summarized prior opinions that concluded that a judge is not disqualified because a spouse is employed by the State Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s office or legal aid.
Finally, disclosure is not necessary unless the judge believes that the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. See JEAC Op. 97-25 and the commentary to Canon 3E(1). This would appear to be the case only if the spouse was directly or indirectly involved in the case pending before the judge.
In conclusion, the Inquiring Judges should disqualify themselves if a family member employed by the Sheriff’s department was actively involved in the litigation or investigation of a matter on behalf of that agency. Merely being a salaried employee with the sheriff’s department in and of itself would not warrant or mandate automatic disqualification on all cases that include that agency. Disclosure is not necessary unless the family member is directly or indirectly involved in the litigation or investigation.
Fla. Code of Jud. Conduct, Canon 3E(1)(c)
Fla. Code of Jud. Conduct, Commentary to Canon 3E(1)
Florida Judicial Advisory Opinions: 03-08; 97-25
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 Judge Lisa Davidson, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, The Moore Justice Center, 2825 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera, FL 32940.
Judge Robert T. Benton, II, Judge Kerry I. Evander, Judge Terry Michael Jones, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Michael Raiden, Judge McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro, Patricia Lowry, Esquire, and Marjorie Gadarian Graham, 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)