FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2010-13
Date of Issue: May 13, 2010

ISSUES

Whether a judge may speak at a "recovery rally" organized by high school students, concerning the judiciary’s role in the increased number of foreclosure cases being filed as a part of the current economic downturn.

ANSWER: Yes.

Whether a judge may speak at such rally if the President of the United States also speaks at the same event.

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The inquiring judge states that the students at a local high school have invited the judge to speak at a “recovery rally” to be held at the school.  The overall purpose of the rally is to assist in uniting the community, local business owners, and the government to support one another in order to assist in the economic recovery.  Financial experts, business owners and local officials have been invited to speak.  The President of the United States has been invited and the students have a good faith basis to believe that, because the President is to be in the area on the date of the rally, he might attend.

The inquiring judge has been invited to speak on the issue of foreclosures of real property and the steps that are being taken in the judicial systems, for example mediation, to deal with the large number of foreclosure cases that are being filed.

The inquiring judge indicates that the judge will emphasize in the speech that the judicial system is required to treat all litigants fairly in accordance with the law, whether the litigant be a property owner or a lender.

The inquiring judge is concerned that, if the President speaks, the public might construe the judge’s appearance on the same podium as support for the President or the political party of which he is a member.

DISCUSSION

The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 4B, provides that “A judge is encouraged to speak, write, lecture, teach, and participate in 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."

This Committee has issued many opinions approving of  judges’ speaking to a variety of non-partisan groups.  See, Fla. JEAC Op. 06-30, and opinions cited therein.

No provision of the Code would prohibit the judge’s appearance at the school function, whether or not the President also spoke.   The inquiring judge is justifiably concerned that appearing on the same podium with the President, or with any high-profile member of either of the political branches of government, might give the impression that the judge supported the politician with whom the judge appeared.

However, the value of the inquiring judge’s speaking (whether or not the President appears) is illustrated by the question, in which the judge indicates an intention to remind the students of the judiciary’s role in the fair administration of justice, which requires judges to administer the law fairly to all litigants, including both property owners and lenders.   In other words, the students will be reminded that judges are required to apply the law, regardless of the economic conditions faced by a community and regardless of any personal sympathies which a judge may have toward the plight of a litigant.

The inquiring judge, just as at all speeches, must ensure that the judge’s comments do not violate any other provision of the Code.  If the President attends, the inquiring judge may need to take additional steps to ensure that this speech makes clear that the judge is not there to advocate a position, either for or against anything the President or any other speaker may say, but instead to explain the role of the judiciary in foreclosure cases.

Judges are not simply permitted by the Code to give such speeches concerning the judicial process, but are encouraged to do so, in order to educate the public concerning the role of the independent judiciary in our state and nation.  The fact that a judge may be on the same program with a politician does not negate the rationale of this provision of the Code, but indeed reinforces its importance.   A judge speaking on the same program with a politician will remind the audience of the different roles which the speakers play in our system of government.

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4B
Fla. JEAC Op. 06-30

_____________

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 T. Michael Jones, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 190 Governmental Center, M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building, Pensacola, Florida  32502.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Robert T. Benton, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Kerry I. Evander, Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Judge T. Michael Jones, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge José 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)