FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2020-22
Date of Issue: October 22, 2020

ISSUE

May a judge become a dues paying member of the NAACP?

ANSWER: Yes.

 

FACTS

The inquiring judge states that a member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has urged several judges to become dues paying members of the organization. There are several levels of membership, each with its required donation; however, the base level annual membership for an adult is less than fifty dollars. The judge intends to join, but is concerned that the NAACP may be a political organization, and that if it is, the Code of Judicial Conduct may prohibit membership. The inquiring judge notes that the NAACP has many roles, some of which may be viewed as political activity. We answer the inquiry based on the assumption that the inquiring judge will not be personally involved in fundraising, act as a leader, serve as an officer or engage in political campaign activity on behalf of the NAACP.

 

DISCUSSION

The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7, advises that a judge must refrain from inappropriate political activity. With certain exceptions, a judge is not to act as a leader or hold office in a political organization. Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7A(1)(a). Nor may a judge make speeches on behalf of a political organization, attend political party functions, solicit funds, pay an assessment to or contribute to a political organization or candidate, or purchase tickets for political party functions. Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7A(1)(c, d, e). Judges are permitted to engage in political activity as otherwise authorized by the Code of Judicial conduct “on behalf of measures to improve the law, the legal system or the administration of justice, or as expressly authorized by law.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7D(ii-iii).

The foregoing prohibitions found in Canon 7 apply only if the NAACP is a “political organization” which the Code states, “denotes a political party or other group, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Definitions. While some of the NAACP’s activities may be viewed as political, there seems to be no basis for saying that, at this time, its principal purpose is political.

The JEAC has previously analyzed whether an organization that has multiple roles, some of which are political, is a “political organization.” In Fla. JEAC Op. 09-13, this Committee considered whether a judge may become a member of the National Rifle Association because proof of current NRA membership was a condition precedent to membership in the local gun club the judge wished to join. The Committee answered that question, in part, by reference to Fla. JEAC Op. 00-22 in which it concluded that, although “the NRA is involved in political matters, it is neither a ‘political party’ nor a ‘political organization’ as defined in the Definitions of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”

We conclude that the NAACP does not meet the Code’s definition of political organization. Thus, dues paying membership in the NAACP is not prohibited by Canon 7.1 However, the answer to the judge’s inquiry does not end there. We again refer to JEAC Op. 09-13 which contains an informative review with summaries of earlier JEAC opinions that dealt with judicial membership in various organizations that have multifaceted roles which included political activity. That opinion does such a good job of pointing out that judges must be mindful of other relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct, that we quote from it at length:

Canon 2A states, “A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Canon 5A provides, in pertinent part, “A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extrajudicial 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.” Canon 3E(1) requires a judge to “disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

This Committee has consistently cautioned judges against lending the prestige of the judicial office to further the interests of advocacy groups, and it has specifically opined that judges cannot be personally involved with any lobbying activities for such organizations. However, the Committee has historically taken the position that mere membership in an organization which is well-known for its positions on political or controversial issues or promotes a particular legislative agenda is not prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct.

. . . .

The judge is reminded of the commentary to Canon 5C(3)(a) which provides, in pertinent part, “The changing nature of some organizations and their relationship to the law makes it necessary for a judge to regularly reexamine the activities of each organization with which the judge is affiliated in order to determine if it is proper for the judge to continue the affiliation.” This comment has equal relevance to any consideration of Canon 2A’s command that a judge act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary, Canon 2B’s directive that a judge not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of another, Canon 2B’s proscription that a judge not convey the impression that others are in a special position to influence the judge, or Canon 5A’s cautions that a judge be circumspect in the judge’s extra-judicial activities. Thus, the inquiring judge must continually monitor membership in this, or any, organization to ensure that the organization’s activities and the public perception of the organization have not changed to the extent that continued membership implicates any of the various provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 2A, 2B, 3E(1), 5A, 5C(3)(a), 7
Fla. JEAC Op. 09-13, 00-22.

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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 Mark Herron, Esq., Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Chair, Messer Caparello, P.A., Post Office Box 1701, Tallahassee, FL 32302 or JEAC@flcourts.org.

Election Subcommittee Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Mark Herron, Esquire, and Judge Michael Raiden.

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 deleted)
Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, Justice Liaison
John Tomasino, Supreme Court Clerk
All Committee Members
Alexander J. Williams, General Counsel of the JQC
Melissa Hamilton, Staff Counsel
Executive Director of the JQC
Office of the State Courts Administrator

 

1. The inquiring judge must ensure that dues paid by the judge to the NAACP are not used principally to finance events for elected officials or for the election of political officers, as that might well change the analysis. See JEAC Op. 13-20.