FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2020-17
Date of Issue: June 15, 2020

ISSUE

May a judge serving on the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization whose purpose is not related to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice, write a letter in support of the foundation’s application for grants from local and state governments?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The Inquiring Judge serves on the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization whose purpose is to support and promote national and international musicians. Among other activities, the organization runs a summer academy and presents recitals for the public. It funds these activities through a combination of ticket sales, charitable contributions, and grants from local and state governments.

A member of the organization has asked the Inquiring Judge to write a letter of support attesting to the value of the organization’s work to the community. The letter would be appended to a grant request.

 

DISCUSSION

The Canons do not forbid a judge from writing a letter of support for an organization’s grant application in all instances. Rather, the Canons draw a sharp distinction between organizations that are devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice (generally covered by Fla. Code. Jud. Conduct, Canon 4), and non-profit organizations that are educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, sororal or civic in nature (generally covered by Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5C). Judges can write such letters on behalf of organizations which fall within the strictures of Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4. See Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4D(2)(c) (judge “may make recommendations to public and private fund-granting organizations on projects and programs concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice”); Fla. JEAC Op. 12-35 (judge may write “letter on judicial letterhead in support of a district school board’s federal grant application when a portion of the grant funds will be used by the district school board to fund a delinquency prevention program”); Fla. JEAC Op. 11-06 (“Canon 4D(2)(c) permits a judge to make recommendations to public and private fund-granting organizations on projects and programs concerning the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice. This Canon does not limit judges to only seeking grants for organizations solely devoted to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, but also to any project or program concerning the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice. The supervised childcare program, which aids the court system, certainly falls into this category.”).

Of course, if a letter of support would violate other Canons, a judge cannot write the letter even where the organization serves the purposes defined in Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4. See Fla. JEAC Op. 02-09 (“even though the proposed letter to a grant provider encouraging the funding of the non-profit organization would be an activity designed to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, the letter could cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially. Therefore, the Committee finds that a judge may not write a letter to the grant provider to encourage funding of this particular non-profit organization.”).

Here, there is no dispute that the foundation at issue is not one contemplated under the guidelines of Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4. Therefore, the inquiry falls squarely within the confines of Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5. Canon 5 allows the Inquiring Judge to serve on the foundation’s board because it is educational and charitable. However, it expressly forbids the Inquiring Judge from “personally or directly participat[ing] in the solicitation of funds.” More to the point, Canon 5 does not contain the exception found in Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4D(2)(c).

The Inquiring Judge asks us whether there “[m]ight [] be a distinction between charitable solicitation and grant application.” We do not see how such a distinction can be drawn. Regardless of whether they come from individuals, foundations, corporations, or governments, grants are funds. And judges cannot solicit funds for educational or charitable organizations that do not concern the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch, or the administration of justice.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 4D(2)(c); 5C(3)(b)(i)
Fla. JEAC Ops. 12-35, 11-06; 02-09

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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 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