March 27, 1975
Re: Canon 2B
Re: Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct
In your inquiry as General Counsel for the Judicial Qualifications Commission dated January 21, 1975, you recited that a member of The Florida Bar was convicted on five counts of income tax evasion. Following the conviction, The Florida Bar moved in the Supreme Court for an order suspending the attorney from the practice of law in Florida until the appeal was disposed of.
In response, and in opposition to that Petition, the attorney filed a compilation of good character letters signed by several Circuit Judges. You attached a copy of these letters signed by the various judges.
You also advised that the Judicial Qualifications Commission felt that what had been done in this case did not warrant disciplinary action by the Commission; however, you were instructed to submit to the Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct this entire matter for their study and consideration so that the judges of Florida should be advised how this Canon is to be interpreted.
The question you present is whether or not the signing and tendering of these letters by the several judges in the case pending in the Supreme Court of Florida involving the attorney's suspension from practice was in violation of Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct governing judges in Florida.
We quote excerpts from these letters:
- 1. " . . I know enjoyed a good reputation with the judiciary, practicing attorneys, and other members of the Bar. . . .
2. ". . . It is my opinion that has conducted himself with honesty and integrity. . I feel he will be deserving of any consideration that this honorable Court will see fit to afford him."
3. ".. . I found him to be highly competent, honest, and frank with other persons and the Court."
4.- ". . . He has always been aboveboard in his dealings with the Court."
5. ". . . He is an asset to the community and the Bar."
6. ". . . appreciate your consideration of these remarks on 's behalf. ."
7. ". . . He is straightforward........demonstrated professional skill and courage as well as sensitivity to the rules of Court of and the rights of others. Thanking you for your consideration of my remarks. ".
The Committee is of the opinion that the nature of these letters and the purpose they were intended to serve clearly indicates they were character reference letters and under the circumstances which they were signed and tendered to the Supreme Court, violated the spirit and intent of Canon 2 (B). . i.e," a Judge. . . should not testify voluntarily as a character witness. ."
This Canon is sufficiently broad to encompass written statements voluntarily submitted with the knowledge and understanding that such statements may be used directly or indirectly in some adjudicatory proceeding. A written statement bearing upon the character of an individual involved either in a civil, criminal, or administrative proceeding would result in injecting the prestige of the judge's office into that proceeding to the same extent as if he voluntarily appeared at such proceeding and testified. Of course, he may be required to testify as a result of an official summons or a comparable obligatory process.
The Committee would emphasize that while Canon 2 (B) "prohibits voluntary character reference letters" written by judges on behalf of persons involved in some types of proceeding, this prohibition should be limited to investigatory or adjudicatory proceedings either of an administrative, civil, or criminal nature where a person's legal rights, duties, privileges or immunities are ultimately determined
The character reference letters submitted on behalf of persons seeking employment or being considered for membership in certain organizations should not necessarily be included within the provisions of Canon 2 B, except as the specific case circumstances might reflect misuse or abuse of the prestige of the Judicial office.
As one member of the Committee pointed out, it is not uncommon for many recognized organizations to submit questionnaires on behalf of persons seeking membership in that organization, nor is it uncommon for federal agencies to ascertain the character of an individual being considered for federal appointment,or employment.
We hope that the foregoing will be of some assistance to the judiciary of Florida.
/s/GUNTER STEPHENSON, as Chairman
Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct