FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2009-11
Date of Issue: June 22, 2009

ISSUE

Whether a judge may be a member of a newly created committee of a nonprofit organization named Women in Distress?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The Inquiring Judge was one of several judges asked to serve on a newly created “Judicial and Legal Education Committee” of a nationally accredited, state certified, full service domestic violence center named Women in Distress.  The Inquiring Judge advises that there is no fundraising responsibility or advocacy component of this Committee. 

Rather, the primary purpose of Women in Distress in forming this Committee is to educate lawyers and judges and to ultimately encourage lawyers to provide pro bono services.  The Inquiring Judge candidly points out that the Judges’ involvement in this Committee may increase participation by local attorneys in providing these services to Women in Distress and its clients.  The Committee would meet on a quarterly basis and the organization would pay for the judges’ lunches. 

DISCUSSION

In JEAC Op. 91-22, the Committee agreed that membership of an organization named Women in Distress was in violation of Canons 2A, 2B and 5A, since involvement would detract from the judge’s role as an impartial magistrate.  Women in Distress is a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, food, clothing and counseling to battered women and children.  It also provides court-ordered group and individual counseling to defendants convicted of domestic violence offenses.  Their mission is to provide victims of domestic violence with safe shelter, crisis intervention and resources and to educate the community in order to Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE) through Intervention, Education and Advocacy. See www.womenindistress.org

Women in Distress has recently created a “Judicial and Legal Education Committee” within this organization in order to educate judges and lawyers on domestic violence issues.  Its ultimate goal is to encourage lawyers to provide pro-bono services. The inquiring judge anticipates that the judge’s involvement may increase participation by local attorneys in providing pro-bono services to this organization.

Pursuant to Canon 2B, “a judge shall not lend the prestige of office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.” Canon 2B.   The involvement of the judge on this Committee would indirectly advance the private interests of this non-profit organization by receiving local attorneys’ free legal services.  Furthermore, any involvement with this organization would detract from the judge’s role as a neutral and impartial magistrate, especially if the organization is paying for the judge’s lunches at these meetings. Canons 2A & 5A.

The Committee has identified some other examples where membership would cast a reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially. (See JEAC 01-14 service on a County Domestic Violence Council is precluded if the Council appears to have become an advocacy group; JEAC Op. 98-08 membership on a victim’s rights council would cast doubt on the judge’s capacity to be a neutral and impartial judge; and JEAC Op. 91-14 membership with the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center would detract from the judge’s role as an impartial magistrate.) 

Since this newly created committee remains under the control of the parent organization of Women in Distress, this Committee concludes that membership is precluded by the Code of Judicial Conduct.

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct: Canons 2A, 2B, & 5A

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions:  91-14, 91-22, 98-08, & 01-14.

_____________

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 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. See 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. See Id.

The opinions of this Committee express no view on whether any proposed conduct of an inquiring judge is consistent with the substantive law which governs any proceeding over which the inquiring judge may preside.  This Committee only has authority to interpret the Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore its opinions deal only with the issue of whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact: Judge C. McFerrin Smith, III, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 101 N. Alabama Avenue, Suite 437, Deland, FL 32724.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Robert T. Benton, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Kerry I. Evander, Judge T. Michael Jones, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Jose Rodriguez, Judge C. McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy Vaccaro.


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)