FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2002-06
Date of Issue: April 8, 2002

MAY A TITLE IV CHILD SUPPORT HEARING OFFICER, SITTING IN ONE COUNTY IN A FOUR-COUNTY CIRCUIT ON A LIMITED BASIS, BE PERMITTED TO PRACTICE LAW INVOLVING CIVIL LITIGATION MATTERS THAT DO NOT INCLUDE FAMILY, CRIMINAL, PROBATE, GUARDIANSHIP, OR MENTAL HEALTH CASES IN THE JUDICIAL CIRCUIT WHERE THE HEARING OFFICER HEARS CHILD SUPPORT CASES?

 

ISSUES

 

May a Title IV Child support Hearing Officer, sitting in one county in a four-county circuit on a limited basis, be permitted to practice law involving civil litigation matters that do not include family, criminal, probate, guardianship, or mental health cases in the judicial circuit where the hearing officer hears child support cases?

Answer: Yes.

 

FACTS

 

The inquiring Title IV judicial hearing officer sits one day each week in one county of a four-county judicial circuit. The hearing officer practices civil litigation in state and federal court, including matters within the circuit in which the hearing officer sits. The hearing officer's practice includes tort law, contract and commercial disputes, and a limited variety of other civil matters. The practice does not include family law, criminal law, probate, guardianship, or mental health law, nor does the hearing officer intend to engage in any practice in these areas in the future. The hearing officer avoids any litigation matters that would require the officer's appearance before any circuit judge responsible for signing orders or adopting recommended orders that the inquirer signs as a Title IV judicial hearing officer.

Since assuming the duties of a hearing officer, the inquirer has presided, or co-presided, over approximately 600 Title IV child support cases, and has observed that there have been fewer than ten attorneys representing litigants in these hearings presented by the Florida Department of Revenue. In the inquirer's twenty years of practicing law, the inquirer has never been involved in any litigation or non-litigation matters with any of those ten attorneys. The Department of Revenue is represented exclusively by a sole practitioner who limits his practice to representing the Department in Title IV matters. This particular attorney has never come into contact with the inquiring hearing officer in any professional capacity.

 

DISCUSSION

 

The Committee recently issued Opinion 2002-03. This opinion clarified those instances in which a part-time hearing officer may practice law in the same circuit in which the hearing officer presides over child support cases. In 2002-03, the hearing officer program described was purely pro bono. Nevertheless, the Committee concludes that the present inquiry is controlled by Opinion 2002-03 and, subject to the dictates of 2002-03, the inquiring part-time hearing officer may continue to practice law in the same circuit in which the hearing officer hears child support cases.

The Committee continues to have a concern that the proliferation of part-time quasi-judicial officers creates the potential for ethical problems. Nevertheless, the Committee applauds those circuits, such as the one involved in the present opinion, and the one involved in Opinion 2002-03, which appear to have carefully tailored their use of part-time child support hearing officers to minimize the possibility of such ethical issues.

 

REFERENCES

 

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 2002-03.

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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 by the Committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So.2d 834 (Fla. 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualification Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. Id.

For further information, contact The Honorable Scott J. Silverman, Chairman, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, The Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, 1351 NW 12th St #712, Miami, FL 33125

Participating Members: Judges Davidson, Kahn, Kotey, Levy, Silverman, Smith, Swartz, Thompson, Townsend and Attorney Graham

Copies furnished to:
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells
All Committee Members
All Members of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)