FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2014-27
Date of Issue: December 3, 2014

ISSUE

May a judge continue to maintain an ownership interest in a business entity that owns a building leased to members of the judge’s former law firm?

ANSWER: Yes, so long as the judge is disqualified from any cases involving the former partners’ firm and the business relationship does not lead to an excessive number of such disqualifications.

FACTS

The inquiring judge, a recent arrival to the bench, seeks guidance regarding disposition of certain assets associated with the firm with which the judge used to practice. Although the professional association itself has been dissolved, the partners had also formed a separate limited liability company (LLC) which owns the building and property where the firm was located. The judge specifically asks whether continued participation in this LLC is permissible.

 

DISCUSSION

A similar inquiry was posed in Fla. JEAC Op. 2006-01. In that opinion the new judge had been a solo practitioner who had formed a Professional Corporation for purposes of ownership of the judge’s former law office. Because Canon 5D(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct permits a judge to continue participation in “closely held” business endeavors, limited to the judge or members of the judge’s family, this Committee perceived nothing wrong with the judge continuing to own and manage the building.1

As the inquiring judge acknowledges, one distinction between Op. 2006-01 and the present case is that the judge is only one of several persons involved in the LLC. Additionally, the building owned by the LLC is now leased to the new firm formed by the judge’s former law partners. The issue before us is whether this is a distinction with a difference.

Canon 5D(1) states that a judge should not become involved in “frequent transactions or continuing business relationships with those lawyers or other persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.” However, previous opinions of this Committee have not interpreted this provision as forcing an absolute prohibition on judges engaging in business relationships with attorneys. For example, in Fla. JEAC Op. 2010-02 the inquiring judge was co-owner of real property with the current County Attorney, and in Fla. JEAC Op. 2007-10 the judge leased a building to the local legal aid group. Instead, the thrust of these opinions is that the judge must disqualify from any cases involving those attorneys and their clients (including, in the first opinion, the county, unless represented solely by outside counsel). In the event this sort of business relationship prohibits the judge from minimizing the number of cases in which disqualification is required, the judge should end the relationship as soon as can be done without serious financial detriment. See Fla. JEAC Ops. 2014-17 and 2001-11.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Stat. 621.03

Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 5D(1) and 5D(2)

Fla. JEAC Ops. 2014-17, 2010-02, 2007-10, 2006-01, 2001-11

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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.    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 Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So. 2d 834 (Fla. 1997).

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 whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact Dean Bunch, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 3600 Maclay Boulevard South, Suite202, Tallahassee, Florida 32312.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge Robert T. Benton, 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, and Judge Richard R. Townsend.


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
Justice Charles T. Canady, Justice Liaison
John A Tomasino, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the Judicial Qualifications Committee
Office of the State Courts Administrator

 

1. The Committee did caution the judge that the current ownership entity would have to be changed. At the time of the inquiry the building was held by a Professional Corporation. Under Fla. Stat. ยง621.03, the sole purpose of such an entity must be “rendering personal service.” Because a sitting judge may no longer practice law, the status of the Professional Corporation would have to be amended.