FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2010-20 (Election)1
Date of Issue: June 22, 2010

ISSUE I

May the inquiring judicial candidate attend a town hall meeting, hosted by an elected state representative, put on for the limited purpose of discussing the outcome of the legislative session?

ANSWER: Yes.

ISSUE II

May the inquiring judicial candidate attend any functions put on by “Organizing for America,” a community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee?

ANSWER: No, unless such conduct complies with Canon 7C(3).

 

FACTS

The inquiring judicial candidate asks if he/she can attend a town hall meeting organized and hosted by an elected state representative. According to the inquiry, the limited purpose of the town hall meeting is to provide the representative the opportunity to discuss with constituents the outcome of the legislative session.  The judicial candidate plans on wearing an election badge at this event and asks if that poses any problem. 

As to the second inquiry, the inquiring judicial candidate asks if he/she can attend any function, whether wearing a badge or not, put on by a political organization called “Organizing for America,” a community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee.

    

 

DISCUSSION

The judicial candidate asks if attending a town hall meeting hosted by an elected state representative is in violation of the Canons.  The meeting is open to the entire public.  The judicial candidate advises that the town hall meeting is organized for the specific purpose of informing the elected official’s constituents about the outcome of the legislative session. Additionally, the judicial candidate asks if wearing a badge at this event poses any problems. 

Provided that the state elected official is not promoting his/her political agenda, but merely discussing the legislative session’s outcome, then the candidate’s attendance at such an event is permissible, because the event would not be a political party function.   Therefore, the judicial candidate may wear his/her badge at this type of event. Since this particular town hall meeting is not a political party function, it is not a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct to attend and wear a badge on behalf of his/her candidacy.  Based on the question presented, nothing in the Canons proscribes this type of conduct; however, the judicial candidate “shall not, with respect to parties or classes of parties, cases, controversies, or issues likely to come before the court, make pledges, promises or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of the office.”  Canon 3B(10). 

This Committee bases its opinion on the facts as stated by the person requesting this opinion.  In this case, the meeting is described as a town hall meeting conducted only for the purpose of reviewing the legislation from the past session.  However, it should be noted that any meeting conducted by a single elected official, who may be running for election, can easily become a political event based on what occurs at the meeting, the purpose of which is to promote the re-election of the official conducting the meeting or others of the same political persuasion.  The true nature of the meeting will not necessarily be known until the meeting occurs, and what is said at the meeting will become a question of fact in the event a complaint is filed against a judge or judicial candidate alleging a violation by virtue of attendance at the meeting.  Therefore, the Committee warns the candidate or judge reading this opinion that reliance on this opinion to conclude that it is permissible to attend such a meeting is perilous, because the nature, purpose, and spirit of the meeting, especially being conducted by a single official rather than an entire legislative delegation, is potentially very political and will not be known until the event is in progress.  Although the judge or judicial candidate could leave the meeting, to some extent the timing of the departure vis-à-vis the change in the content of the meeting, would also be a question of fact, again imperiling the candidate or judge in the event a complaint is filed.

Therefore, caution is strongly advised when attending these types of events, since the purpose is for the citizens to voice their opinions on varying issues and their expectation of receiving a pledge or commitment on particular issues from the public figures and/or elected officials. See Fla. JEAC Op. 98-17 (candidate should be cautious that his or her presence, remarks, and/or actions are not construed by others to be political or partisan).

As to the second inquiry, Florida Statutes § 105.071 and Canon 7A(1)(d) of the Code of Judicial Conduct provide that “a judge or candidate for election shall not attend political party functions” unless the judge or judicial candidate is involved in an election.  The Code of Judicial Conduct in Canon 7C(3) provides that a “judicial candidate involved in an election or re-election . . . may attend a political party function to speak in behalf of his or her candidacy or on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice.”  Canon 7C(3).  The Code further limits that conduct by stating that the function cannot be a fundraiser and all the candidates in that race must be invited to speak at the function. Canon 7C(3). The inquiring judicial candidate asks if attending a function put on by “Organizing for America,” a community organizing project of the Democratic National Committee would violate Canon 7. 

The stated goal of this organization is to “alleviate political apathy and increase support for the Democratic Party.”  The official website for this organization links to www.barackobama.com.  This organization centers itself around political activism in favor of the Democratic Party’s earlier plans for national health care reform and the stimulus package.  Additionally, the members of this organization seek to mobilize supporters in favor of President Obama’s legislative agenda.  In the Definitions section of the Code of Judicial Conduct, “political organization denotes a political party or other group, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office.”  Clearly, this is a political organization with strong ties to the Democratic Party.  Therefore, Canon 7C(3) is applicable and must be strictly adhered to by the judicial candidate.

Since the judicial candidate was not clear on the circumstances of how he/she was invited to attend this political organization, a brief commentary on previous opinions should be of assistance in determining whether he/she may attend the function.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 00-22, a judicial candidate may attend and speak at a political party function which is not a fundraiser and the opponent has been invited to speak as well.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 90-16, the Committee opined that a judicial candidate may not attend a partisan political meeting for the sole purpose of standing outside the doorway wearing a badge and meeting the delegates. In Fla. JEAC Op. 04-31, a judicial candidate could not leave campaign literature on display tables in both the Republican and Democratic committee headquarters.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 96-11, the Committee again reinforced this position by stating that a judicial candidate may not attend partisan political functions to obtain signatures and meet potential voters. Finally, in Fla. JEAC Op. 02-08, a judicial candidate may not attend a political meeting in order to socialize and meet the participants, and not speak at the function.  Canon 7C(3) clearly gives a limited exception for attending political party functions. 

Accordingly, in order to attend a political party function, the judicial candidate must comply with Canon 7C(3).  As long as the judicial candidate is:  1.) speaking in behalf of his or her candidacy or on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice; 2.) all candidates for that office are invited to this function, and 3.) the function is not a fundraiser, then there is no prohibition from attending a function put on by “Organizing for America.”  Canon 7C(3). Further, if able to attend this political party function, the “judicial candidate . . . must avoid conduct that suggests or appears to suggest support of or opposition to a political party, a political issue, or another candidate.”   See Canon 7C(3).  If invited under the limited requirements of Canon 7C(3), then the judicial candidate may wear his/her badge for election.

In conclusion, attending a town hall meeting sponsored by an elected legislative representative that is open to the public for the specific purpose of discussing the outcome of the legislative session is not prohibited by the Code.  Caution is emphasized because the nature, purpose and spirit of the meeting can change at any point.  Attending a town hall meeting that promotes the legislative agenda of the elected official would be prohibited by the Code, unless it meets the criteria outlined in Canon 7C(3).  Furthermore, strict adherence to Canon 7C(3) would be required in order for a judicial candidate to attend an event sponsored by a political organization named “Organizing for America.”

    

 

REFERENCES

Florida Statutes § 105.071

Fla Code Jud Conduct, Canons 3B(10),  Canon 7A(1)(d), 7C(3) and the Definitions Section of the Code of Judicial Conduct

Fla. JEAC Ops. 04-31, 02-08, 00-22, 98-17, 96-11, 90-16

Other Sources: www.barackobama.com

_____________


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.

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:
(Elections Subcommittee):  Judge Robert T. Benton, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Dorothy Vaccaro.


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
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

 

1.The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has appointed an Election Practices Subcommittee.  The purpose of this subcommittee is to give immediate responses to campaign questions in instances where the normal Committee procedure would not provide a response in time to be useful to the inquiring candidate or judge.  Opinions designated with the “(Election)” notation are opinions of the Election Practices Subcommittee of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and have the same authority as an opinion of the whole Committee.