FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2015-04
Date of Issue: March 18, 2015

ISSUE

Whether a judge can teach at a one day training session for judges, magistrates, and court staff on how to deal with domestic violence issues?

ANSWER: Yes, provided the teaching activities do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been asked to be a faculty member at a one day training session for judges, magistrates, and court staff learning to deal with domestic violence issues. A grant was obtained from the Office on Violence Against Women for this training, and the session will be sponsored by the circuit court on which the judge sits in conjunction with the Dawn Center (who runs a shelter for victims of rape and domestic violence and whose mission is to stop domestic and sexual violence by providing supportive services and leadership that promotes social change). The inquiring judge handles domestic violence cases and is unsure whether participation will make it appear as though the inquiring judge is taking sides and not being objective.

 

DISCUSSION

Canon 4B provides:  “A judge is encouraged to speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in other quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, the administration of justice, and the role of the judiciary as an independent branch within our system of government, subject to the requirements of this Code.” Among other requirements set out in the Code are those set out in Canon 4A, which provides:

A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s quasi-judicial activities so that they do not:
(1)  cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge;
(2)  undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality;
(3)  demean the judicial office; 
(4)  interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties;
(5)  lead to frequent disqualification of the judge; or
(6)  appear to a reasonable person to be coercive.

These provisions were cited when the JEAC opined that a county judge could properly teach in the police academy at a community college. See Fla. JEAC Op. 05-11. Although the Committee was not unanimous in that opinion, the opinion contains a full discussion of several pertinent considerations and this caveat: “The inquiring judge should be careful not to answer hypothetical questions, not to comment on pending cases, and not to make remarks that could result in disqualification.” Id. The thought behind the caveat is that, while a thorough discussion of precedent, including its exact reach and scope, is in order, a judge should be at pains not to prejudge specific cases in order to maintain impartiality and avoid recusal or disqualification.

The JEAC has also urged caution and circumspection in dealings with advocacy groups, including domestic violence advocacy groups. See Fla. JEAC Op. 01-14 (recommending against membership in a local domestic violence council which had shifted from a clearinghouse for information to a court-monitoring group sometimes critical of judicial decisions). We believe a key point here is that, even if Dawn Center is viewed as an advocacy group (as to whether it is an advocacy group we express no opinion), the inquiring judge has been asked to help educate court personnel, not to join, support or endorse a private organization. We think the present case is analogous to that of the judge asked to be a panelist at a panel discussion sponsored by MADD. See Fla. JEAC Op. 06-17 (finding no impropriety in a judge’s participation in a panel discussion on the problem of underage drinking and stating: “The . . . inquiring judge is not seeking to join MADD but only to participate in a public event sponsored by that organization. We are given no reason to believe that MADD plans to dictate the content of the panel discussion, whose theme (‘Start Talking Before They Start Drinking’) appears educational in nature and whose premise (underage drinking is a problem) hardly seems controversial.”). See also Fla. JEAC Op. 12-31 (allowing chief judge to permit general magistrate and court staff to attend training session sponsored by the Salvation Army and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

In sum, we see no reason why the inquiring judge could not teach as requested in a matter fully consistent with Canon 2A’s requirement that judges comport themselves in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 2A, 4A, & 4B.
Fla. JEAC Ops. 12-31, 06-17, 05-11 & 01-14.

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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 Spencer Levine, 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