FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2017-11
Date of Issue: June 24, 2017

ISSUES

Whether the Code of Judicial Conduct provides guidance for how a judge should dispose of an anonymous cash gift.

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge received an anonymous birthday card at home which contained $10,000 in cash. The judge immediately turned the money over to the Sheriff’s Office. After conducting an investigation the Sheriff’s Office determined that the money was almost certainly sent by a person who, at the time the judge received the money, had a case pending before the inquiring judge. The presiding judge no longer serves in the same division. The Sheriff’s Office has determined that the evidence is lacking to proceed with criminal charges against the litigant. The money remains in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office. The inquiring judge seeks guidance as to what the Canons require the judge to do with the money.

 

DISCUSSION

The Code of Judicial Conduct establishes standards for the ethical conduct of judges. “The Code is designed to provide guidance to judges and candidates for judicial office and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Preamble. Canon 5D(5) prohibits a judge from accepting “a gift, bequest, favor or loan from anyone” with certain exceptions that are not applicable under the facts presented here. The commentary to Canon 5D(5)(d) explains, in pertinent part:

A gift to a judge ... that is excessive in value raises questions about the judge’s impartiality and the integrity of the judicial office ...

Canon 6 requires a judge to report gifts to the Judicial Qualifications Commissions. Neither Canon 6, nor its attendant commentary address, the reporting requirement if the gift is ultimately returned or disposed of in some other manner.

The excessive amount of the anonymous gift presented to the inquiring judge alone, would, if accepted, call into question the ethics of the judge and the integrity of the judicial proceedings. That the gift was from a then litigant whose case was pending before the judge suggests an attempt at bribery.

The inquiring judge asks this committee, “What should I do with the money?” We first note that any effort by the inquiring judge to direct the method and manner in which the gift is disposed of is discouraged. Any such efforts by the inquiring judge calls into question the integrity of the prior judicial proceedings. Additionally, if the inquiring judge were to direct that the money be given to a particular charitable organization or other charitable groups such a decision could be perceived as the judge using the judicial office to solicit funds for a particular group in violation of Canon 5C(3)(b)(iii).

The Committee offers the following suggestions as ways the inquiring judge could avoid the appearance of impropriety during any disposition of the gift in question:

  1. Disclaim any possessory interest in the funds. This would leave the money in the possession of the Sheriff’s Office and allow them to decide what to do with the funds.
  2. Request that the Sheriff’s Office turn the money over to the Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Unclaimed Property. See § 717 et seq., Fla. Stat. (2016).
  3. Ask the Sheriff’s Office to return the money to the litigant it has identified as the sender.

 

REFERENCES

§ 717 et seq., Florida Statutes (2016).
Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Preamble; Canons 5D(5); 5C(3)(b)(iii); 6; and Commentary to Canon 5D(5)(d).

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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 Michael Andrews, 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