FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2016-16
Date of Issue: September 9, 2016

ISSUE

Whether a judge may be recognized at a reception for Women in Distress, a domestic violence center, when the event is not a fundraiser, the organization is not an advocacy group, and the attendance and recognition would not detract from the judge’s role as an impartial magistrate?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been invited to a reception “to recognize Women in Distress and a Domestic Violence Restraining Order Task Force.” The event is sponsored by a commercial lighting company. Women in Distress is a “full service domestic violence center which provides shelter, counseling, and support for victims and their children.” Its mission is “to stop domestic violence abuse for everyone through intervention, education, and advocacy.” The Task Force is a group formed to promote efficiency and consistency in the processing of domestic violence restraining orders.

The inquiring judge advises that there is no charge to attend this event, the judge’s presence would be acknowledged (no speaking), and the judge has on occasion presided over domestic violence court.

 

DISCUSSION

Canon 4B of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct provides that a judge may “participate in . . . quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice . . . subject to the requirements of this Code.” As this Committee stated in Opinion 95-40, the topic of domestic violence obviously relates to the law and found that attending a luncheon sponsored by a local domestic violence council did not violate the Code.

Being recognized or acknowledged at an event, however, raises other concerns. Canon 2B prohibits a judge from lending the prestige of his or her office to advance the private interests of others, “nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.” Canon 5C(3)(b) prohibits a judge from being a speaker, guest of honor, or otherwise featured at a fundraising event unless the event concerns the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice as authorized by Canon 4D(2)(b). This Committee assumes that the inquiring judge has been diligent in determining that no fundraising will occur at the event; such would likely preclude the judge from being acknowledged per Canon 4D(2)(b). If the judge is unsure whether the reception has the characteristics of a fundraiser, JEAC Opinion 10-33 sets forth factors to be considered, e.g., selling tickets or ads or auctioning of items. (The Women in Distress website, for example, currently has a posting for an upcoming golf tournament and otherwise solicits donations.).

Although the stated mission of this organization includes the word “advocacy,” the judge’s attendance and recognition at this reception may be permitted so long as the focus of the organization’s “advocacy” consists of general education and not favoring or disfavoring a specific gender. See Commentary to Canon 4(D)(2).

While formal membership in the Women in Distress organization and its committees has been found to be in violation of Canons 2A, 2B, and 5A, see Fla. JEAC Op. 09-11, this Committee concludes that the inquiring judge’s presence and recognition at this reception is permissible so long as the event contains no fundraising component, the organization has not become an advocacy group in the traditional sense, and that the attendance and recognition does not cast doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially.

One member of this Committee disagrees with this opinion, believing that the judge’s recognition at this event may convey to others that the domestic violence organization is in a special position vis-a-vis the judge. The dissenting member is also concerned that the precedent of Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion 95-40 may be distinguishable since this event is sponsored by a commercial enterprise.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code of Jud. Conduct, Canons 2A, 2B, 4B, 4D(2)(b), 5A, 5C(3)(b); commentary to Canon 4(D)(2).
Fla JEAC Ops. 95-40, 09-11, 10-33.

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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 of 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 whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact Judge Spencer D. Levine, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Fourth District Court of Appeal, 1525 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL 33401

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge W. Joel Boles, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Miguel de la O, Judge James A. Edwards, Mark Herron, Esquire, Judge Barbara Lagoa, Judge Spencer D. Levine, Judge K. Douglas Henderson, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Michael Raiden.


All Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opinions, subject matter indices, and a search engine are available on the Sixth Circuit’s website at www.jud6.org under Opinions. Committee opinions and related finding tools are also accessible on the Florida Supreme Court’s website at www.floridasupremecourt.org as a secondary posting under Court Opinions.


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