FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2003-23
Date of Issue: December 17, 2003

UNOPPOSED INCUMBENT JUDICIAL CANDIDATE SPEAKING TO THE LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS AND THE NAACP REGARDING ADEQUATE FUNDING FOR THE COURTS IN IMPLEMENTATION OF ARTICLE V, REVISION 7.

ISSUES

Whether a judge, who is a candidate for re-election with no announced opposition, can speak to the League of Women Voters and the NAACP regarding adequate funding for the courts in implementation of Article V, Revision 7.

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The inquiring judge is a candidate for re-election and has no announced opposition at this time. The judge is attempting to follow the Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice's request to educate the local legislative delegations and the public about the adequate funding to the courts issues from implementation of Article V, Revision 7. In following this request, the judge would like to approach and speak to the local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP. The judge feels that neither organization is a partisan political organization (although the judge notes that it is arguable whether these two organizations are political). The judge inquires whether it would be inappropriate to appear at meeting of either organization to make speeches on the importance of adequate funding for the judicial branch in light of Article V, Revision 7.

DISCUSSION

Canon 4B states that:

"[a] judge may speak, write, lecture, teach and participate in other quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, subject to the requirements of this Code."

Canon 7A(1) states that:

"[e]xcept as authorized in Sections 7C(3), a judge shall not: (c) make speeches on behalf of a political organization; (d) attend political party functions."

Canon 7C(3) states that:

"[a] judicial candidate involved in [a] re-election, who has certified that he or she has active opposition, may attend a political party function to speak on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice."

A judge, who is also a candidate for re-election without opposition, is in practicality the same position as any sitting judge, and must follow the dictates of Canon 7A(1), as the exceptions in Canon 7C(3) are not triggered until active opposition is certified.

This Committee finds that speaking on the importance of adequate funding for the courts in light of implementation of Article V, Revision 7 is a quasi-judicial activity concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. Thus, it appears that the contemplated speeches are within the scope of Canon 4B. However, conduct approved by Canon 4B is subject to other provisions of the Code. Canon 7 prohibits inappropriate political activity. The deciding factor, under Canon 7, for the propriety of these speeches, is whether the League of Women Voters and the NAACP are partisan political parties. If they are, attending their functions, even to make a speech on a proper subject, would be prohibited by Canon 7A(1).

This Committee has distinguished between partisan and bipartisan or nonpartisan political activity when determining whether certain proposed judicial activity is permissible under Canon 7. Fla. JEAC Op. 75-21; Fla. JEAC Op. 95-01. Where a political organization is bipartisan or nonpartisan, rather than for the political advantage of a person or party, judicial activity with such an organization is not proscribed by Canon 7. Fla. JEAC Op. 75-21; Fla. JEAC Op. 95-01.

Regarding the League of Women Voters, the inquiring judge supplied information from its website that states "[t]he League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government." Also, in Opinion 94-27, this Committee opined that although it is an organization of political nature, a judge could appear before the League of Women Voters and give a talk on court-related matters. See also Fla. JEAC Op. 74-11 (finding no impropriety of judge, who was a candidate for re-election with no opposition, to attend "political fair" sponsored by League of Women Voters and other groups, as it was a nonpartisan political gathering). Therefore, the inquiring judge would not be prohibited by Canon 7A(1) to speak at a meeting of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters regarding adequate funding for courts under Article V, Revision 7. Regarding the NAACP, the inquiring judge also supplied information from its website that states "[t]he primary focus of the NAACP continues to be the protection and enhancement of the civil rights of African Americans and other minorities." The website states that "[m]embership is open to anyone believing in the basic tenets of the NAACP." The website further states that the NAACP has a legal department that focuses on class actions and other cases of broad significant impact, a bureau for lobbying for civil rights, and voter empowerment efforts "to achieve full political empowerment for African Americans."

The website also states that its programs are designed to ensure civil rights compliance and equitable treatment of all Americans, and its political empowerment initiative is devoted to all Americans. This Committee finds that although the NAACP is an organization of political nature, it appears to fit the description of both bipartisan (i.e., open to all) and nonpartisan (i.e., for all Americans). Thus, the inquiring judge would not be prohibited by Canon 7A(1) to speak at a meeting of the local chapter of the NAACP regarding adequate funding for courts under Article V, Revision 7. Regarding both organizations, as this Committee has cautioned in the past, "there is also a continuing problem with public perception," and that, although the organization's bylaws may proscribe certain activities, the actual practices of the organization may differ placing the judge in an awkward position. Fla. JEAC Op. 94-27 (one member opining that "United We Stand" would be perceived by the public as being a political party, as it was closely identified with the presidential campaign of Ross Perot). As another Committee member noted, "there are some clubs that are loosely run and therefore may be viewed by the public in one manner in Pensacola but may be viewed completely differently in Tampa, Jacksonville or Miami." Fla. JEAC Op. 95-03. "In that circumstance, it is possible that a judge in Pensacola should not belong while a judge in another city arguably could permissibly belong." Fla. JEAC Op. 95-03. Therefore, the inquiring judge needs to be "constantly on guard not to be placed in a partisan position or act for the political advantage of a person or party." Fla. JEAC Op. 95-01; see also Fla. JEAC Op. 95-03 (one member opining that if the clubs "have for their principal agenda the advancement of politics, then judges should stay away.").

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 4B, 7A(1), and 7C(3).

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 74-11, 75-21, 94-27, 95-01, and 95-03.

_____________

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 Richard R. Townsend, Acting Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Post Office Box 1018, Green Cove Springs, Florida 32043.

Participating Members:
Judge Robert Benton, Judge Karen Cole, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Phyllis Kotey, Judge Melanie May, Judge Jose Rodriguez, Judge McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr. Judge Richard R. Townsend, Ervin Gonzalez, Esquire, 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)