FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2013-03
Date of Issue: January 25, 2013

ISSUES

May a judge participate in a county elections task force to address issues encountered in the judge’s county and throughout the state during the 2012 general election?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been invited by the local county legislative delegation to participate in an Elections Task Force to “address issues concerning the problems encountered in [the judge’s] County and throughout the state” during the 2012 general election. 

DISCUSSION

Canon 5C(2) states that a judge “shall not accept appointment to a governmental committee or commission or other governmental position that is concerned with issues of fact or policy on matters other than the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice.”  The commentary to this canon reasons that this prohibition is “to protect the courts from involvement in extrajudicial matters that may prove to be controversial.”

The Florida Legislature amended the state’s election laws in 2011 providing restrictions on the registration of voters and reducing the number of early voting days.  These legislative changes have evoked strong reaction.  The issues of what reforms, if any, are necessary to resolve any problems encountered with an election or with the state’s election laws likely will involve fact-finding and issuing recommendations such as statutory changes and/or possible litigation. These are activities which could call into question the judge’s ability to be fair and impartial and may constitute comment on impending litigation.  These activities also may prove to be controversial.

This Committee consistently has opined that a judge should not accept appointment to a governmental committee or commission which may prove to be controversial because it would involve the judge in the political process of the other branches of government.  Cf. Fla. JEAC Op. 81-6 (a judge may not serve on the state’s parole and probation commission because such appointment would be “political in nature and would involve the judge in the political process of the Executive Department, which could prove to be controversial”); Fla. JEAC Op. 84-9 (a chief judge may not accept a position as chairman of a committee charged with redistricting a county within the circuit); Fla. JEAC Op. 97-24 (a judge may not participate in an advisory board that would oversee a federal block grant secured by the local police department; although the function of the advisory board “may be related to the administration of justice, the potential for conflict is high because the inquiring judge would in essence be serving as an advisor to the police department,” a department of the executive branch of local government); Fla. JEAC Op. 01-16 (a judge may not serve as an appointed member of a commission of a municipal government charged with fiscal oversight of government funds because such a function is a “clear responsibility of the executive branch”); Fla. JEAC Op. 09-06 (a judge may not serve on a local county ethics commission for the purpose of establish a code of ethics for the county commission because it would involve “drafting a policy which regulates ethical behavior and then consulting with the county commission, an executive body”).      

Based on the foregoing, the Committee opines that Canon 5C(2) prohibits a judge from participating in a county elections task force to address issues encountered in the judge’s county and throughout the state during the 2012 general election.

REFERENCES

Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 5C(2) and commentary.

Fla. JEAC Ops. 81-6, 84-9, 97-24, 01-16, 09-06.

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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 which governs any proceeding over which the inquiring judge may preside. 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 the Committee Chair: Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Fourth District Court of Appeal, 1525 Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, West Palm Beach, Florida 33401.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Robert T. Benton, II, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Jack Espinosa, Jr., Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Judge T. Michael Jones, Judge Barbara Lagoa,  Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Michelle Morley, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro. 


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
Justice Charles T. Canady
Thomas D. Hall, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator