February 2, 1996
PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL
Judge as ABOTA member
In re: Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges
Your Inquiry Dated December 15, 1995
You inquire into the propriety of becoming a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). ABOTA seeks to maintain and increase ethical and educational standard for trial lawyers. ABOTA also seeks to advance the interests of its members professionally and to enable trial lawyers to have an active association in the community through which they may learn and be heard. ABOTA membership is equally split between plaintiffs' and defense lawyers.
A majority of the committee believe that membership in ABOTA is an activity allowed by Canon 4D. ABOTA is dedicated to the improvement of the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.
Canon 5 provides that a judge shall regulate extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict. Since ABOTA seeks only to raise standards and awareness of trial lawyers, mere membership will not cast reasonable doubt on your capacity to act impartially. However, this issue might be raised should a fellow ABOTA member appear before you. Membership standards are relatively high- this is not an automatic membership for an attorney. Due to the exclusivity of ABOTA, questions of favoritism might be valid. The numbers of practicing ABOTA members in Florida is unknown, and you would be well advised to disclose the potential conflict if your ABOTA sponsor were to appear before you for a reasonable period (one year) following your entry into the group.
Canon 7, governing political activity, is applicable because you will be paying dues--an assessment--to ABOTA. ABOTA is a nonpolitical, nonpartisan group. Your membership will not be prevented by this Canon.
Six responding committee members feel your membership in ABOTA is permissible. Additionally, two members do not believe you need to disclose the potential conflict if your ABOTA sponsor appears before you. Two committee members feel that you should not become a member. Following is the substance of one member's dissenting opinion:
Although [ABOTA's] by-laws permit membership by the judiciary, I am of the opinion that a Judge should not be a member. ABOTA takes a very active role in lobbying both at the State and national level on matters which are routinely before our Courts...It would be very difficult for an ABOTA judge not to be involved in taking public positions on very contested issues, the likes of which may come before that Judge in actual litigation. I would very much discourage membership...I agree that there is no violation per se of any of the Canons.
The 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 judges, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions by the Committee. Petition of the Commi