FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2011-12
Date of Issue: August 26, 2011

ISSUE

May a judge attend a fundraiser for a respected veterans’ organization if the judge will be one of several individuals honored at the event and more than half of the funds raised at the event will be used to assist veterans identified by the courts as needing financial assistance.

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been invited to attend the annual black tie affair of a respected veterans’ organization. The event honors our past and present armed forces, and awards will be given to several individuals who continue to fight for the veteran population, locally, regionally, and nationally. The inquiring judge has been selected to receive a prestigious award for dedication and commitment to our veterans and their families. The event is also a fundraiser, and estimates are that 50-60% of funds generated will assist veterans identified in court as needing assistance.

DISCUSSION

Before May 22, 2008 the Code of Judicial Conduct contained a blanket prohibition that prevented a judge from engaging in fundraising activities in the judge’s quasi-judicial or extra-judicial activities. Canons 4 and 5. This prohibition included being a speaker, receiving an award, or other recognition, or being featured on the program at an organization’s fundraising event.

In 2008, the Supreme Court amended Canon 4D(2)(b), the Commentary to Canon 4D(2)(b), and the Commentary to Canon 5C(3) in In Re: Amendments to the Code of Judicial Conduct-Limitations on Judges’ Participation in Fundraising Activities, 983 So. 2d 550 (Fla. 2008) to create a very specific exception to the prior blanket prohibition. 

While mere attendance at a fundraising event does not constitute a violation, see Commentary to Canon 5C(3)(b), the 2008 amendments to the Code now permit a judge to appear or speak at, receive an award or other recognition at, be featured on the program of, and permit the judge’s title to be used in conjunction with an organization’s fundraising event only if:
            1. The event concerns the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, and
            2. The funds raised will be used for a law related purpose, and
            3. The organization or governmental entity is devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice, and
            4. The judge, in participating in the event, does not violate any other provision of the Code (Canon 4A(1)-(6) specially noted).

In JEAC Op. 2008-17 this committee concluded that a judge could properly be a guest speaker at a fundraiser for drug court. The organization, the event, and all funds raised were specifically dedicated to drug court – the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. That opinion further contained detailed references to other provisions of the Code that should be considered by a judge who is considering an invitation to participate in a fundraising event.

In JEAC Op. 2009-07 this committee concluded that ORT America, an organization devoted to improving lives through education, is not an organization or governmental entity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice as required by Canon 4D.  While an indirect result or by-product of its core goal of promoting better education may indeed be that those who are better educated will be less likely to break the law and thus lead to less crime, the inescapable conclusion is that this type of organization is not a law-related organization as contemplated by the amendments to Canon 4D.

In other opinions we have repeatedly concluded that judges may not participate in fundraisers where the event’s purpose is not law-related. See Fla. JEAC Op. 08-22 (judge may not appear as “dignitary guest” in fund-raising ballet, sponsored by ballet company organized as charitable organization, and allow company to use judge’s name and title to advertise event); Fla. JEAC Op. 01-09 (judge may not participate as featured speaker at fundraising roast of prominent local figure); Fla. JEAC Op. 00-31 (judge may not act as chairperson of kickoff event for fundraising organization); Fla. JEAC Op. 99-15 (judge may not be guest speaker at college alumni banquet, when banquet is main fund-raiser for alumni club); Fla. JEAC Op. 98-32 (judge may not participate in charity fashion show by announcing winning tickets and describing items won); Fla. JEAC Op. 90-20 (judge may not participate as guest of honor at charitably-funded institution’s dinner where patrons may purchase journal advertisements dedicated to the judge, and distribution of journal is one of institution’s main fundraising activities); and Fla. JEAC Op. 90-12 (judge may not serve as chairman of golf tournament, even though judge would neither participate in solicitation of funds nor be identified as judge in materials associated with tournament, where entity sponsoring tournament is nonprofit organization which raises funds to support sports activities).

As with other noble charitable causes, this Committee does not question the value of an event honoring past and present armed forces, veterans and their families, and individuals who continue to fight for veterans. However, such an event does not qualify under the 2008 amendments to the Code as law-related.

Likewise this respected veterans’ organization is devoted to veterans, and so it does not qualify under the 2008 amendments to Canon 4D as being devoted to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.

The inquiring judge should decline the invitation.

REFERENCES

In Re: Amendments to the Code of Judicial Conduct-Limitations on Judges’ Participation in Fundraising Activities, 983 So. 2d 550 (Fla. 2008).

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 4D, 4A(1)-(6), 4D(2)(b), 5, and 5C(3)(b).

Fla. JEAC Ops. 90-12, 90-20, 98-32, 99-15, 00-31, 01-09, 03-16, 08-17, 08-22, and 09-07.

_____________

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 Committee expresses no view on whether any proposed conduct of an inquiring judge is consistent with substantive law. The 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: Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey (US) LLP, 777 South Flagler Drive, Suite 1900 West, West Palm Beach, Florida 33401.

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 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)