FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2009-12
Date of Issue: June 22, 2009

ISSUE

May a judge sit on a synagogue committee that determines if members qualify for a reduction in membership dues?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The Inquiring Judge’s synagogue has a committee comprised of several members of the synagogue that review applications submitted by prospective members who assert that they cannot afford to pay full membership dues. An applicant may submit personal financial information to be reviewed by the synagogue committee to determine if the applicant qualifies for reduction of membership dues, and if so, by how much. The only personal contact that the synagogue committee has with applicants is when, in rare instances, applicants request a face-to-face meeting with the committee to present their case. Although the synagogue committee tries to keep its membership anonymous, the names of committee members can be determined if this information is sought.

     

The Inquiring Judge wants to know if a judge may be a member of this synagogue committee.

     
DISCUSSION

Canon 5 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to conduct all of their extra-judicial activities so that they do not: (1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge; (2) undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality; (3) demean the judicial office; (4) interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties; (5) lead to frequent disqualification of the judge; or (6) appear to a reasonable person to be coercive. Judges are encouraged to participate in extrajudicial community activities. See Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Commentary 5A. The commentary to Canon 5A specifically states that a “[c]omplete separation of a judge from extra-judicial activities is neither possible nor wise; a judge should not become isolated in the community in which the judge lives.

Canon 5C(3) specifically permits a judge to serve as an officer, director, trustee, or non-legal advisor of a religious organization as long as it is not likely that the organization (i) will be engaged in proceedings that would ordinarily come before the judge, or (ii) will be engaged frequently in adversary proceedings in the court of which the judge is a member or in any court subject to the appellate jurisdiction of the court of which the judge is a member.  The facts as presented regarding the finance committee of the synagogue do not run afoul of Canon 5A or 5C.

Canon 5C(3)(b)(i) permits a judge serving as an officer, director, trustee, or non-legal advisor, or as a member or otherwise of a religious organization to participate in the management and investment of the religious organization’s funds. The Inquiring Judge will not be soliciting memberships or funds as a member of the synagogue committee as prohibited in the Commentary to Canon 5C(3)(b). The Inquiring Judge, along with several other individuals on the synagogue committee will simply be deciding if prospective members of the synagogue will be granted a reduction in membership dues and the specific amount of any such reduction. The Inquiring judge may serve on the synagogue’s committee that addresses a reduction in the membership dues of members.

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 5, 5C(3), Commentary to Canons 5A and 5C(3)(b).   

_____________

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, and 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)