November 30, 1983
Opinion No.: 83/14
County judge's wife is mayor of municipality within county
This is in response to your inquiry of September 27, 1983. You have been recently appointed to fill a vacancy on the county court bench. Your duties would include hearing civil traffic infractions and criminal and ordinance violations arising throughout the county. Your wife is mayor of a municipality located within the county. You want to know whether you must recuse yourself in cases in which the municipality is a party or in which a fine might inure to the benefit of the municipality.
Of the nine members responding to your inquiry, eight were of the opinion you should not sit on those cases. Canon 2 commands that we not only avoid impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety. Canon 3C requires we disqualify ourselves where impartiality might reasonably be questioned. While it might be true that neither you nor your wife would benefit from fines collected on behalf of the municipality, there is the strong possibility the public will perceive - or perhaps misperceive - that there is something improper. As one member put it, when a judge finds himself in the situation of being required to exercise his discretion in imposing fines so as to determine the amount of financial benefit that will be gained by a particular municipality, and when that judge is related by a spousal or familial relationship to a governing officer of the municipality whose discretionary duties include the determination of how fine-generated funds are to be spent and applied, then the judge should assume that there may be an appearance of impropriety in his situation. It is the discretionary ability of the judge and the party to whom he is related to generate, channel, and distribute public fines which may directly or indirectly benefit the positions of both parties which may be misperceived by the public.
In your own situation, there are other judges who can deal with cases affecting that municipality. The administration of justice will not be seriously inconvenienced. Those considerations lead us to the opinion that you should not sit on cases involving that municipality.
What we have said in your case, however, might not hold true in all instances. There may be instances where it would be extremely inconvenient for the judge to recuse himself. There are perhaps areas in the State that would require another judge to travel long distances simply to handle cases arising from a small municipality. The situation could arise where a judge's spouse held state wide office. It could not be said the judge in that instance should recuse himself where the State of Florida is a party. There will be instances where we are required to weigh the interests of efficient judicial administration against the public's possible misperception of impropriety.
One of our members found there to be no impropriety from your sitting on cases arising from traffic and municipal ordinance violations in the city of which your wife is mayor.
James T. Carlisle
Chairman, Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges
Participating members: Judges Carlisle, Booth, Hewitt, Letts, Turner, Green, Grube, Tedder, and Attorney Samuel Powers, Jr.