FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2002-09
Date of Issue: June 3, 2002

WHETHER A JUDGE MAY WRITE A LETTER TO A GRANT PROVIDER ENCOURAGING THE FUNDING OF A LOCAL NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT PROVIDES VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE WITH ADVOCATES, BOTH CRIMINAL AND CIVIL, AS THE VICTIMS' CASES PROCEED THROUGH THE COURT SYSTEM?

ISSUES

Whether a judge may write a letter to a grant provider encouraging the funding of a local non-profit organization that provides victims of domestic violence with advocates, both criminal and civil, as the victims' cases proceed through the court system?

ANSWER: NO.

FACTS

The inquiring judge asks whether the judge may write a letter to a grant provider, encouraging the funding of a local non-profit organization. The organization provides advocates for victims of domestic violence as the victims' cases proceed through the court system. Criminal and civil advocates are provided. The organization also provides counseling and emergency shelter for victims.

DISCUSSION

Canon 4D(2)(b), Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, states that a judge may make recommendations to public and private fund-granting organizations on projects and programs concerning the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice. Judges may also belong to Domestic Violence Task Forces as long as the activities of the task force are law related and gender neutral. Fla. JEAC Op. 94-33. However, if the task force advocates stiffer penalties for domestic abusers or if a judge has indicated a tendency to more severely punish domestic abusers, then the judge may have to disqualify himself in a domestic violence case. Yates v. State, 704 So. 2d 1159, 1160 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998).

In the present case, the Committee recognizes that the proposed grant would be channeled to improve the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice. However, the inquiry does not end at that point. By writing the proposed letter, a judge would be indirectly assisting litigants or witnesses (alleged victims) that would appear before the court. This could affect the perception of impartiality. The Committee has previously found that a judge may not serve on a county Domestic Violence Council, if the council appears to have become an advocacy group. See Fla. JEAC Op. 01-14. In that opinion, the Committee found that, "Membership on the Council would cast a reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially." Id. Similarly, a judge may not ethically belong to a Victim's Rights Council which, among other things, sponsors (unofficial) training for judges; reviews judicial rulings and decisions relating to sentences, referrals to batterers' intervention programs, the ordering of child support, etc.; and supports bills and legislation. Fla. JEAC Op. 98-8. That opinion noted that although the Commentary to Canon 4A states that judges are "'encouraged to participate in activities designed to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice . .' a judge's participation is not unfettered where the activities 'cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially.'" Id.

In conclusion, the Committee finds that even though the proposed letter to a grant provider encouraging the funding of the non-profit organization would be an activity designed to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, the letter could cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially. Therefore, the Committee finds that a judge may not write a letter to the grant provider to encourage funding of this particular non-profit organization.

REFERENCES

Yates v. State, 704 So. 2d 1159 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998).

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 4A and 4D(2)(b).

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions, 94-33 and 01-14.

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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, Rodriguez, 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)