FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2004-32
Date of Issue: August 9, 2004

ISSUES

Whether a judge, serving in a leadership capacity of a community based non-profit organization, may publish a letter inviting leaders to begin addressing issues raised in the organization's study of race relations?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

The inquiring judge serves in a leadership capacity of a community based non-profit organization. The organization conducted a study of race relations within the community. The study recommended that the community's African American leadership take a more active and public role in addressing issues. To that end, the inquiring judge has authored a letter inviting individuals and organizations to an "action" meeting for the purpose of reviewing the "state of the African American community," reaching consensus about its strengths and weaknesses, and deciding on a plan of action.

DISCUSSION

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee was previously asked to opine on the ability of a judge to serve in a leadership capacity of a community-based nonprofit organization to improve the community's quality of life by improving race relations. See Fla. JEAC Op. 03-01. This committee answered the inquiry in the affirmative, and at the same time cautioned the judge not to be directly involved in fund-raising, lobbying, or becoming involved in extrajudicial activities that "(1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge; (2) demean the judicial office; or (3) interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties." Id. See also Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5A; JEAC Op. 98-6; JEAC Op. 76-21. We reach the same conclusion here.

Canon 5C(3) provides:

A judge may serve as an officer, director, trustee or non-legal advisor of an educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, sororal or civic organization not conducted for profit, subject to the following limitations and the other requirements of this Code.

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 5C(3). This allows the judge to serve in a leadership capacity, and to actively participate in that leadership role so long as the judge avoids those areas proscribed by the Code. They include fund-raising, lobbying, and placing the judge in a position that either casts doubt on the judge's impartiality, demeans the judicial office, or interferes with the proper performance of his/her duty. Id.

Canon 3B also requires a judge to "perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status . . . ." See Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3B(5).

We do not find a letter inviting local civic leaders to a meeting to run afoul of the Code. We cannot, however, take literary license to edit the wording of the letter. Rather, we simply caution the judge to ensure that the letter's wording and contents remain within the confines of the Canons as outlined. As we have previously stated, "[i]f it appears that the duties as chair requires the judge to engage in activities which may conflict with the Code, the judge should delegate some of the responsibilities to other officers." See Fla. JEAC Op. 03-01.

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct: Canons 3 and 5
Fla. JEAC Op. 03-01
Fla. JEAC Op. 98-6
Fla. JEAC Op. 76-21

_____________

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)