FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2003-09
Date of Issue: September 25, 2003

TRAFFIC HEARING OFFICER MAKING FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION TO POLITICAL CANDIDATE AND WRITING LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION TO JUDICIAL NOMINATING COMMITTEE.

ISSUES

1. Whether a traffic hearing officer can write a letter to the chairman of a judicial nominating committee endorsing an applicant?

ANSWER: Yes.

2. Whether a traffic hearing officer can make a financial contribution to a political candidate?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring attorney is a Traffic Hearing Officer appointed pursuant to section 316.30, Florida Statutes, who asks whether it is appropriate to write a letter to the chairman of a judicial nominating committee supporting an applicant for judicial appointment. Further, the inquiring attorney asks whether a hearing officer can make a financial contribution to a political candidate.

DISCUSSION

To answer the first inquiry, we must determine whether the Code of Judicial Conduct applies to Traffic Hearing Officers. In JEAC Opinion 02-10, we stated that Canon 7 applied to Traffic Court Hearing Officers. We wrote:

The applicability of the specified provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct to Traffic Hearing Officers is unambiguously clear. The statutory provisions of 318.36 Florida Statutes and the provision of Rule 6.630(I) Florida Rules of Traffic Court both recognize a limited application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to Traffic Hearing Officers. These provisions do not appear to conflict with the language of Canon 7. Therefore, in the absence of the expressed reservation or limitation of the applicability Canon 7 to Traffic Hearing Officers, the Canon applies.

While Canon 7(E) Applicability provides that: 'Canon 7 generally applies to all incumbent judges and judicial candidates,' this language regarding the 'general' application of Canon 7, does not negate the specific applicability of the Canon 7 to Traffic Hearing Officers that is designated later in the Canon.

See also JEAC Op. 00-04 stating that Traffic Hearing Officers are subject to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Therefore, Canon 7 applies to Traffic Hearing Officers in the same manner it applies to incumbent judges. In Opinion 95-24, the committee opined:

[J]udges may communicate with a Judicial Nominating Committee in writing with succinct, factual statements or observations concerning the qualifications of applicants in accordance with the standard provisions of letters of recommendation addressed in the commentary to Canon 2B and the September 29, 1994 Opinion of the Supreme Court in In re: Code of Judicial Conduct, 643 So. 2d 1037 (Fla.1994).

Further, in JEAC Opinion 95-24, we stated that, "[j]udges may either initiate such correspondence or so respond to official inquiries from the appointing committees." However, judges have been cautioned to refrain from endorsing or soliciting support for a specific judicial candidate before the Judicial Nominating Committee ("JNC"). Fla. JEAC Op. 02-10; see also, Fla. JEAC Op. 94-8 (stating judge is prohibited from endorsing a judicial candidate). The committee recommends strict adherence to the commentary to Canon 2B to avoid the appearance of impropriety. We conclude that a Traffic Hearing Officer is not prohibited from writing to the JNC.

Our next inquiry is whether a Traffic Hearing Officer can make a financial contribution to a candidate. Since the language regarding the general application of Canon 7 does not negate the specific applicability of Canon 7 to Traffic Hearing Officers, the entire provision applies. Pertinent provisions of Canon 7A(1)(b) and (e), state the Traffic Hearing Officer cannot:

publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office or . . . make a contribution to a political organization or candidate. . . .

Moreover, opinions previously issued by the committee indicate that the Traffic Hearing Officer is prohibited from endorsing or making a contribution to a judicial candidate. See Fla. JEAC Op. 02-10; Fla. JEAC Op. 94-8. Therefore, a Traffic Hearing Officer cannot make a contribution to a judicial candidate's campaign.

REFERENCES

Florida Code Judicial Conduct: Canons 2(B) and 7
Fla. JEAC Op. 94-8
Fla. JEAC Op. 95-24
Fla. JEAC Op. 00-4
Fla. JEAC Op. 02-10
In re: Code of Judicial Conduct, 643 So. 2d 1037 (Fla. 1994)

_____________

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 Judge Phyllis D. Kotey, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Eighth Judicial Circuit, Alachua County Courthouse, 201 East University Avenue, Room 205, Gainesville, Florida 32601.

Participating Members:
Judge Jeffrey D. Swartz, Judge McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Charles J. Kahn, Jr., Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr., Judge Scott J. Silverman, Judge John G. Fletcher, Ervin Gonzalez, Esq. and Marjorie Gadarian Graham, Esquire.


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