August 13, 1996
General Master/Support Enforcement
Hearing Officer practicing law
Re: Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges
Your inquiry dated May 15, 1996
You serve as a part-time General Master/Support Enforcement Hearing Officer. You inquire whether you may continue to practice family law so long as you do not appear before another General Master, Support Enforcement Hearing Officer or Circuit Judge. You give several examples of situations where this may arise. From these examples, it appears that you contemplate practicing in the same circuit in which you preside. In Opinion 95-8 we held that, under the Code, part-time Child Support Hearing Officers were not allowed to practice law in the same court or forum in which they preside:
Six of the responding members felt that it would appear that conflicts of interest could easily arise where a substitute hearing officers has to preside over cases litigated by attorneys that he or she may later be in an adversarial position within other cases in other forums. An obvious danger is that there may [be] a "chilling effect' among attorneys that regularly appear before the substitute hearing officer that would result in "different" treatment for the part-time hearing officer. On the other hand, there may be a corresponding pressure upon substitute hearing officers to make favorable rulings to those attorneys that appear before them in hope of receiving less aggressive treatment or certain advantages in negotiations when they are adversaries.
The Opinion further stated "pursuant to the comment to Canon 3E(1), '...a judge is disqualified whenever [the] judge's impartiality might reasonably by (sic) questions (sic), regardless of whether any of the specific rules in Section 3E(1) apply.'" [Editor's note: Canon 3E(1) is misquoted here, not in Opinion 95-8]
All eight responding Committee members think the reasoning of Opinion 95-8 applies to your inquiry, even though it is posed in terms of handling cases that would not require an appearance before the General Master, Hearing Officer or Circuit Judge. The conflicts of interest discussed in Opinion 95-8 could still arise. Therefore, the answer to your inquiry is no.
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 judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions issued by the committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct for Judges, 327 So.2d 5 (Fla.1976).
Oliver L. Green, Jr.
Chairman, Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges
cc: All Committee Members
Office of the State Courts Administrator
(name of judge deleted from this copy)
Participating Members: Judges Cardonne, Green, C. Kahn, L. Kahn, Rushing, Silverman, Tolton and Attorney Novicki