FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2004-25
Date of Issue: June 29, 2004

ISSUES

Whether a non-incumbent judicial candidate can publish a letter seeking information from public officials about the health of an incumbent judge the judicial candidate plans to run against.

ANSWER: We decline to answer the inquiry.

FACTS

The inquiring judicial candidate seeks to gather information about the health of an incumbent circuit judge whom the candidate intends to oppose. The judicial candidate plans to send identical letters about the health of the incumbent judge to the incumbent judge, the chief judge, the clerk of the circuit court, and other officials in the circuit where the incumbent judge presides. Additionally, the judicial candidate intends to send the letter to the Florida Supreme Court, the State Division of Elections, and the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The judicial candidate has no personal knowledge of any illness which adversely affects the incumbent's ability to perform as a circuit judge. Nevertheless, the inquiring judicial candidate states: "knowledge [which] may be inferred from circumstances" and "anecdotal references" have caused the inquiring judicial candidate to "wish to clarify the issue" about the incumbent judge's health.

DISCUSSION

This inquiry seeks review and approval of campaign correspondence, which this Committee deems to be in the nature of campaign literature. The judicial candidate requests the JEAC's "opinion and direction concerning the disclosure of the inquiries." The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee ("JEAC") and its predecessor, the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, has been given a narrow charge by the Florida Supreme Court. When drafting the enabling authority of the JEAC, the Florida Supreme Court stated:

The purpose of the Committee shall be to render written advisory opinions to inquiring judges concerning the propriety of contemplated judicial and non-judicial conduct.

Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So. 2d 834, 835 (Fla. 1997). The JEAC has stated repeatedly that generally it does not review judicial candidates' campaign literature. JEAC Ops. 00-23, 98-27, 95-35. Therefore, we decline to render an advisory opinion.

We direct the judicial candidate to several requirements of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 1 reads in part:

A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of a judiciary may be preserved.

Canon 2 states:

A judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities.

We also direct the judicial candidate to Canon 7A(3)(a), which reads in part:

A candidate for a judicial office shall maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office and act in a manner consistent with the integrity and independence of the judiciary. . . .

Finally, we direct the judicial candidate to the Preamble to the Code of Judicial Conduct which states:

Our legal system is based on the principle that an independent, fair and competent judiciary will interpret and apply the laws that govern us. The role of the judiciary is central to American concepts of justice and the rule of law. Intrinsic to all sections of ths Code are the precepts that judges, [and judicial candidates] individually and collectively, must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system.

We conclude by noting that although circuit judges are elected, judicial candidates should not engage in campaign activities which, although acceptable in partisan politics, are not only not acceptable in judicial races, but are strictly prohibited. See, e.g., 105.071, Fla. Stat. By submitting oneself as a judicial candidate, one agrees (with rare exceptions which are not applicable to this inquiry) to follow the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Florida Statutes that apply to judicial races.

REFERENCES

Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So. 2d 834, 835 (Fla. 1997).
105.071, Fla. Stat.
Canon 1, 2, and 7A(3)(a), Florida Code of Judicial Conduct
Fla. JEAC Op. 95-35.
Fla. JEAC Op. 98-27
Fla. JEAC Op. 00-23

_____________

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 Melanie May, Judge Michael Raiden, 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
Thomas D. Hall, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator
(Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)