FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2020-02
Date of Issue: January 31, 2020

ISSUES

Whether a judge may attend an awards event recognizing advocates for children.

ANSWER: To the extent that this event is also a fundraiser for a civic organization and the judge will be specially introduced during the event, no.

 

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been invited to attend a Florida’s Children First special event that would honor three individuals as “true champions for children” (none of whom are the inquiring judge). According to its website, Florida’s Children First “works to improve the government and private systems that exist to serve children. We do this in several ways: Executive Branch Advocacy, Legal Advocacy, Legislative Advocacy, Procedural Rule Advocacy, Support for Former Foster Youth, Training and Support of Attorneys.”

The invitation the judge received from an event organizer stated “[w]e hope you can join us as we thank those who’ve given so much, and acknowledge leaders in our midst like yourself.” The accompanying advertisement for the special event stated, “Join distinguished child advocates, members of the judiciary, elected officials, and civil leaders as they recognize . . . truly remarkable advocates for children.” Tickets to this event are listed in the advertisement at $125 per person, as well as program book space starting at $500.

The inquiring judge wishes to know whether attendance at this event would be prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct.

 

DISCUSSION

There are two judicial canons this inquiry appears to implicate. With respect to charitable or civic organizations, Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5C(3)(b)(iii) states “A judge . . . as a member or otherwise . . . shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising or membership solicitation.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4D(2)(b), however, allows a “judge . . . as a member or otherwise” to “appear or speak at, receive an award or other recognition at, be featured on the program of, and permit the judge’s title to be used in conjunction with an event of . . .” an organization “devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice.” To answer the judge’s inquiry, then, we must first answer two preliminary questions: (1) is this special event a fundraiser; and (2) if it is, what kind of organization is it raising funds for?

The answer to the first question, from the information we have, appears to be in the affirmative. Although there is no direct solicitation contained within the materials the inquiring judge has forwarded to our attention, nor does the advertisement for the special event explicitly state that fundraising will occur during the event, it seems very likely that fundraising will at least be a part of this event. The price of the tickets and availability of advertisement space are themselves suggestive of a fundraising component. Cf. Fla. JEAC Op. 05-02 (noting that Knights of Columbus dinner did not appear to be fundraiser where there was no indication the organization intended to sell advertisements in a journal, hold a silent auction, or conduct a raffle and referring to journals, auctions and raffles as “indicia of fund-raising”).1 And in the experience of many members of this committee who have attended similar events, fundraising is frequently a feature (of varying degree) during programs such as these. Assuming that is the case with this special event, we must next ascertain whether Florida’s Children First is a law-related organization, and if it is, whether this event could be said to concern the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.

In 2008, the Florida Supreme Court amended Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4D(2)(b)

to permit a judge to “speak at, receive an award or other recognition at, be featured on the program of, and permit the judge’s title to be used in conjunction with an event of [an organization or governmental entity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice].” However, if the event serves a fundraising purpose, the judge may participate “only if the event concerns the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.” This change is intended to allow judges to participate in a law-related organization’s fundraiser only where the particular event serves a law-related purpose and the funds raised will be used for a law-related purpose. It will be the responsibility of the judge who wants to participate in a fundraising event to determine that the event meets the criteria of this Canon and that the organization intends to use the funds in a manner consistent with this Canon.

See In re Amendments to the Code of Judicial Conduct - Limitations on Judges’ Participation in Fundraising Activities, 983 So. 2d 550, 552 (Fla. 2008). The commentary to Canon 4D(2)(b) was further amended to “caution[] that judges ‘may not participate in or allow their titles to be used in connection with fund-raising activities on behalf of an organization engaging in advocacy if such participation would cast doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge.’ ” Id.

Since the 2008 amendment, this Committee has construed the parameters of what constitutes a law-related organization on several occasions. See Fla. JEAC Op. 16-20 (serving on committee responsible for raising funds for golf tournament raising funds for Guardian Ad Litem was impermissible because it “casts reasonable doubt on the inquiring [dependency] judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge,” but attendance at the fundraising event was not prohibited by Canon 5); Fla. JEAC Op. 14-07 (inquiring judge could participate as a model in Association of Women Lawyers’ fashion show event whose proceeds would primarily benefit a free childcare facility inside the courthouse as well as help fund assistance to law students in financial need because the Association was an organization devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice and the courthouse childcare program “improves the administration of justice by decreasing continuances due to childcare issues and by making the courts more accessible to parents who would not otherwise be able to attend required court proceedings because of a lack of childcare options”); Fla. JEAC Op. 11-15 (finding Young Lawyers Section of the inquiring judge’s local bar association was a fund-raising event of a law-related organization but the charity golf tournament at issue was not a “quasi-judicial” activity because the funds would not be used for a law-related purpose and concluding that the judge’s participation as a “hole sponsor” at the event was authorized based on the commentary added by the Florida Supreme Court to Canon 5C(3)(b)); Fla. JEAC Op. 11-06 (determining that the Young Women Christian Association is not solely a law-related organization; “[t]o permit judges to fundraise for a nonprofit organization which is not solely law-related, but which develops programs that are law-related would undermine the intention of the Supreme Court when it amended Canon 4D in 2008”); Fla. JEAC Op. 10-32 (concluding that participation in a program or skit for American Inn of Court competing for an award that included a monetary contribution to a charity of choice was “conduct that concerns the law and the legal system” and noting that the inquiry did not involve participation in fundraising because “[t]he participating judge is not actively involved in a fundraising activity and is not utilizing the prestige of the judge's office to promote fundraising. The judge is merely designating a recipient of funds already in the coffers of the organization.”); Fla. JEAC Op. 10-31 (inquiring judge’s proposed letter of support for the “One Campaign” of The Florida Bar to members of the Florida Bar encouraging donations of pro bono services was permitted under Canon 4(D)(2)); Fla. JEAC Op. 09-15 (“A non-profit legal services corporation which provides legal services to indigent persons is a law-related organization under Canon 4D . . . ”); Fla. JEAC Op. 09-07 (“ORT America is not an organization or governmental entity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice as required by Canon 4D. While an indirect result or by-product of its core goal of promoting better education may indeed be that those who are better educated will be less likely to break the law and thus lead to less crime, the inescapable conclusion is that this type of organization is not a law-related organization as contemplated by the amendments to Canon 4D.”); Fla. JEAC Op. 08-23 (concluding that “[a]lthough the Anti-Defamation League is a civic organization and the purpose of the luncheon is, in part, to raise funds for the organization, . . . the Committee concludes that as long as the purpose and ultimate use of the [inquiring judge’s purchased advertisement] will be solely congratulatory, and neither the contribution by the judge nor the content of the advertisement will cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s impartiality, interfere with the performance of judicial duties, or lead to frequent disqualification of the judge, the inquiring judge may purchase the proposed advertisement”).

Based on the information we have about this organization (and given that our prior opinions appear to indicate that this determination is highly contextual), we are of the opinion that Florida’s Children First would not be considered a law-related entity for purposes of Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4D(2)(b); and we are certain that this event is not one that solely “concerns the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.” According to the advertisement, the event is meant to honor individuals “who support the mission of Florida’s Children First by making positive changes in the lives of abused, neglected and disadvantaged youth in or aging out of foster care.” While that may touch upon the legal system and the administration of justice, it seems clear that the purpose for honoring these three individuals is because of a broader civic purpose: they have, in various ways, helped “mak[e] positive changes” in the lives of disadvantaged youth.

Having resolved these two preliminary questions, we can now turn to the issue at hand. Can the judge attend this event? More specifically, can the judge attend this event in the manner that appears to be contemplated - where the judge will be one of the advertised “members of the judiciary” who may be formally “acknowledged” (i.e., publicly introduced) at some point during the program. There is no indication from the information we have been provided that the inquiring judge will have any active participation in this special event. To the extent this judge would have any “role” in the event at all, we suspect it might comprise of nothing more than standing up to be recognized at some point in the program. We hesitate to liken what will probably be a momentary recognition of a judge’s attendance at a fundraiser to a judge tacitly “permit[ing] the use of the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising or membership solicitation” proscribed under Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5C(3)(b)(iii). That said, it seems more than likely that the organization is advertising the presence of members of the judiciary at this event - and perhaps introducing them as such - for that very purpose. Accordingly, erring on the side of caution, see Fla. JEAC Op. 19-07 (noting that “Canon 2 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct calls for judges to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities”), we would recommend that the inquiring judge not attend this event as it has been advertised.

 

REFERENCES

In re Amendments to the Code of Judicial Conduct - Limitations on Judges’ Participation in Fundraising Activities, 983 So. 2d 550 (Fla. 2008)
Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 5C(3)(b)(iii); 4D(2)(b); 2

Fla. JEAC Ops. 19-07; 16-20; 14-07; 11-15; 11-06; 10-32; 10-31; 09-15; 09-07; 08-23; 05-02

_____________


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 W. Joel Boles, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Chair, First Circuit M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building, 190 Governmental Center, 6th Floor, Pensacola, FL 32502 or JEAC@flcourts.org.

Participating Members:
Judge Michael Andrews, Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge W. Joel Boles, Judge Miguel de la O, Judge James A. Edwards, Judge David Green, Mark Herron, Esquire, Judge Jeffrey T. Kuntz, Judge Matthew C. Lucas, Judge Michael Raiden, and Charles Reynolds, Esquire.

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, Supreme Court Clerk
All Committee Members
General Counsel of the J.Q.C.
Melissa Hamilton, Staff Counsel

 

1. According to the advertisement, refreshments (presumably non-alcoholic) and light hors d’oeuvres will be served.