FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2015-01
Date of Issue: January 16, 2015

ISSUES

Must a judge, who receives no alimony or support from the judge’s former spouse, disclose or enter a disqualification order when a former law partner of the judge’s former spouse appears before the judge and rents space from and shares a receptionist with the judge’s former spouse?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has recently been assigned to the dependency division in which frequent counsel appointments are made from the circuit registry in accordance with section 27.40, Florida Statutes. There are a limited number of attorneys appointed to the dependency registry in the inquiring judge’s circuit. One of the dependency registry attorneys is a former a law partner of the inquiring judge’s former spouse. The dependency registry attorney rents office space from the judge’s former spouse in the same building where the attorney and the judge’s former spouse used to maintain the law firm. The dependency registry attorney also pays half of the salary of a receptionist that the attorney and the judge’s former spouse utilize. The inquiring judge receives no alimony or support from the former spouse.

 

DISCUSSION

This inquiry is governed by Canon 3E(1) which requires a judge to disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. The commentary to this canon also suggests that a judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might consider relevant to the issue of disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no real basis for disqualification.

Although one member of the Committee would require additional facts that might be relevant to this opinion, based on the underlying facts provided by the inquiring judge, the Committee believes that because the inquiring judge receives no alimony or support from the judge’s former spouse, no reasonable person would question the judge’s impartiality if an attorney appears before the judge who maintains a business relationship with the judge’s former spouse. Furthermore, disclosure of the attorney’s relationship with the judge’s former spouse is not required because the relationship is not relevant to the question of disqualification. See, e.g., Fla. JEAC Op. 02-05 where this Committee advised that a judge is not required to “per se disclose personal family matters” and that a judge in the family law division need not disclose that the judge is divorced and may potentially be involved in litigation concerning the judge’s children.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 3E(1), Commentary to Canon 3E(1).

Fla. JEAC Op. 02-05

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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, 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.


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