FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2007-01
Date of Issue: January 25, 2007

ISSUES

1.       Whether a part-time traffic magistrate can rent office space from a law firm that handles traffic infraction matters, traffic appeals, and criminal traffic matters?

ANSWER: Yes.

2.       Whether a part-time traffic magistrate can work as an independent contractor with a law firm that handles traffic infraction matters, traffic appeals, and criminal traffic matters?

ANSWER:Only if the contract work does not pertain to traffic hearings, traffic appeals, and criminal traffic matters, and then the part-time traffic magistrate would be disqualified from hearing any case in which the law firm was involved.

FACTS

The inquiring traffic magistrate is presently sharing office space with a law firm.  The inquiring traffic magistrate may choose to become an independent contractor with the firm in the future. The inquiring traffic magistrate questions whether this relationship with the law firm requires recusal from all cases that come before the inquiring part-time traffic magistrate that are represented by this law firm.

DISCUSSION

The inquiring traffic magistrate is subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct in the same manner as part-time judges with a few exceptions not pertinent here. See In re Florida Rules of Practice and Procedure for Traffic Courts-Civil Traffic Infraction Hearing Officer Pilot Program, 559 So. 2d 1101 (Fla. 1990); Fla. R. Traf. Ct. 6.630(j).  The inquiring magistrate understands that he/she is prohibited from representing clients or practicing before any official in any civil infraction matter, traffic appeal or criminal traffic matter. See § 318.36, Fla. Stat. and Fla. JEAC Op. 92-48.

          Currently, the inquiring traffic magistrate is sharing office space with a law firm in the county where the traffic magistrate serves.  The law firm is the inquiring traffic magistrate’s landlord and practices in traffic infraction matters, traffic appeals, and criminal traffic matters.  As long as their relationship is arm’s length and the office lease is commercially reasonable, the fact of sharing space does not violate the Code, although sitting on the law firm’s cases would be ill advised because the traffic magistrate’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. See Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 3(E)(1).

Next, the inquiring traffic magistrate is considering working for the law firm as an independent contractor. In that event, it would be incumbent upon the inquiring traffic magistrate to disqualify himself or herself in any case involving the law firm.  Resignation would not be required.

Pursuant to Canon 3(E)(1), “[a] judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned [where] (c) the judge knows that he or she individually . . . has an economic interest . . . in a party to the proceeding . . .”   In Fla. JEAC Op. 00-34, disqualification was required when a former law partner was the attorney of record and the attorney’s firm was making payments to the judge pursuant to the terms of a promissory note. In that opinion, the Committee pointed out that “[a]lthough the inquiring judge has no direct financial interest in the law firm, the judge has an interest in the overall ability of the firm to make payments pursuant to the terms of the promissory note and thus had an interest in the future financial success of the firm.”  Fla. JEAC Op. 00-34

The same logic applies in this situation.  Logically, the inquiring traffic magistrate would be interested in the financial success of this firm if the firm agreed to engage and pay the traffic magistrate as an independent contractor.   Therefore, the inquiring traffic magistrate should disqualify himself or herself in any matters in which this law firm appears, if the inquiring traffic magistrate becomes an independent contractor for the firm.

REFERENCES

Florida Statute: Section 318.36.
Florida Case: In re Florida Rules of Practice and Procedure for Traffic Courts-Civil Traffic Infraction Hearing Officer Pilot Program, 559 So. 2d 1101 (Fla. 1990).

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct: Canons 3(E)(1) and 3(E)(1)(c).

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions:  00-34 and 92-48.

Florida Rule: Fla. R. Traf. Ct. 6.630(j).

_____________

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 the judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and 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 Qualifications 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 Robert T. Benton, II, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 301  S. MLK Jr. Blvd. Tallahassee, FL 32399.

Participating Members:
Judge Robert T. Benton, II, Judge Terry Michael Jones, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Michael Raiden, Judge Jose Rodriguez, Judge McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg, Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr., Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro, Patricia Lowry, 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
Inquiring Judge (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)