FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2013-18
Date of Issue: October 16, 2013

ISSUES

(1) May judges, who are assigned to a specialized domestic violence division, participate in a fundraising walk-a-thon sponsored by a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise awareness for domestic violence victims and provide them with support?

ANSWER: No.

(2) If the answer to the above is “no,” may judges in the domestic violence division attend the event without actually walking in the walk-a-thon?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The Inquiring Judge is one of several judges who are assigned to a domestic violence division in the Inquiring Judge’s circuit. The president of a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness for domestic violence victims and provide them support sent an e-mailed invitation to the administrative judge of the domestic violence division inviting the judges to participate in a walk-a-thon fundraiser. Attached to the e-mail invitation was information about the walk-a-thon, including registration forms and tips to participants on how to ask for donations.  The e-mail states, “It would be great if you and other judges could support us in this event.” The president of the organization sent another judge in the domestic violence division a similar e-mail requesting, “Please let me know if you are available so that we can announce all of the judges in attendance.” The Inquiring Judge questions whether the judges in the domestic violence division may participate by actually walking in the walk-a-thon, and if not, whether they may ethically attend the event as spectators.

    
DISCUSSION

In several previous Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory opinions, the Committee addressed the propriety of judges attending fundraisers, judges attending events sponsored by a non-partisan group which has a specific agenda, and judges participating in walk-a-thons.  This inquiry incorporates all three of these issues. 

The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct encourages judges to be actively involved in their communities. “Complete separation of a judge from extra-judicial activities is neither possible nor wise; a judge should not become isolated from the community in which the judge lives.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Commentary to Canon 5A. Frequently judges are asked by charitable or law related organizations to participate in their fundraising events. Mere attendance at a fundraiser by a judge does not constitute a violation of Canon 4 or 5, subject to prohibitions set forth in each canon.

This walk-a-thon is sponsored by a nonprofit organization that directly and/or indirectly interacts with the domestic violence judges. The funds raised from the walk-a-thon potentially will be used to aid one party, the alleged victims in domestic violence cases who will be appearing before the domestic violence judges.  Paramount in maintaining the public’s trust and respect for the judiciary’s work is that the judiciary impartially performs its duties, and that it is perceived as doing so.  Canon 2A states that a judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.  Canons 4A(1) and 5A(1) require that a judge conduct all of the judge’s quasi-judicial and extra judicial activities so that they do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially.

The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has issued opinions permitting judges to participate in walk-a-thons designed to raise funds for charitable purposes and to make a personal contribution to support the cause, as long as the judge does not solicit sponsorships,1 is not a draw, and is not promoting the private interests of another.   See Fla. JEAC Ops. 05-14, 10-15, 12-29.

Judges have also been permitted to participate in extra-judicial activities to raise awareness of domestic violence issues.  In Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion 94-33, the inquiring judge was permitted to be a member of a domestic violence task force as long as it was gender-neutral, law related, and not an advocacy group.  See also Fla. JEAC Op. 01-14. However, judges have been prohibited from participating in activities or events related to domestic violence when a judge’s impartiality might be questioned. The Committee has specifically addressed judges’ involvement with organizations providing aid to domestic violence victims. In Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion 02-09, a judge was not permitted to write a letter to a grant provider encouraging the funding of a local non-profit organization that provides victims of domestic violence with advocates, both criminal and civil, as the victims’ cases proceed through the court system. In Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion 94-38, the Committee opined that a judge who presided over all battery cases that arose from domestic situations should not participate in a Domestic Violence Task Force created by the Governor which was chaired by the Executive Director of a domestic violence shelter in the judge’s jurisdiction.  The committee noted in this opinion that a judge’s current assignment and the frequency of the appearance of an organization or its membership in court are factors which must be considered by a judge in deciding to be involved with an organization.  Fla. JEAC Op. 94-38; see also Fla. JEAC Op. 91-22.

Consequently, the judges in the domestic violence division should not be participants in this walk-a-thon or even attend the event.  The president of the organization has stated that she wishes to recognize those judges who attend.  By doing so, it would be using the prestige of judicial office to fundraise for an organization that has frequent interactions with the domestic violence court on behalf of alleged victims of domestic violence, one party in the cases presided over daily by the Inquiring Judge and the other judges in the domestic violence division. The participation by the judges to any degree in the domestic violence walk-a-thon would be a violation of Canons 2A, 4A(1) and 5A(1).

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 2A, 4, 4A(1), 5, 5A(1), Commentary to 5A.

Fla. JEAC Ops. 91-22, 94-33, 94-38, 05-14, 10-15, 12-29, 01-14, 02-09.

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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 to 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 Judge Roberto Arias, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Duval County Courthouse, 501 West Adams Street, Room 7180, Jacksonville, Florida 32202-4603.

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 Michael Raiden, 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

 

1. Judges may solicit funds from other judges over whom the judge does not exercise supervisory or appellate authority.