FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2012-25 (Election)1
Date of Issue: August 2, 2012

ISSUES

May a judicial candidate attend a candidate forum hosted by the Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly to be held at the headquarters of the organization’s endorsed partisan candidate for the Florida House of Representatives?

ANSWER: If the judicial candidate is not seeking the organization’s endorsement, and if the organization has indicated it will not endorse a judicial candidate, then yes.  If the judicial candidate is seeking the organization’s endorsement, or if the organization has indicated it will endorse a judicial candidate, then no.

FACTS

The inquiring judicial candidate has been invited to attend a candidate forum hosted by the Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly.  All judicial candidates have been invited to the forum and the forum is not a fundraiser.  The forum will be held at the headquarters of the organization’s endorsed candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, out of which the subject organization also operates. 

    
DISCUSSION

Canon 7A(1)(d) of the Code of Judicial Conduct provides that “a judge or candidate for election or appointment to judicial office shall not attend political party functions” unless the judge or judicial candidate is involved in an election.  The Code of Judicial Conduct in Canon 7C(3) provides that “a judicial candidate involved in an election or re-election . . . may attend a political party function to speak in behalf of his or her candidacy or on a matter that relates to the law, the improvement of the legal system, or the administration of justice.”  The Code further limits attendance by stating that the function cannot be a fundraiser and all the candidates in that race must be invited to speak at the function.  Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7C(3).  In addition, attendance at the political party function is limited to situations where the judicial candidates will be speaking to an audience as opposed to personal chatting, socializing, and meet and greet situations.  Fla. JEAC Ops. 06-15, 04-11, 02-11

     While at the event, the type and kind of speech for a judicial candidate is also restricted by Code of Judicial Conduct and section 105.071, Florida Statutes.  Canon 7C(3) prohibits judicial candidates from commenting on the candidate’s affiliation with any political party or other candidate, or engaging in conduct that suggests, or appears to suggest, support of or opposition to a political party, a political issue, or another candidate.  A judicial candidate may not attend or participate in an endorsement or rating interview session sponsored by a political party for the purpose of obtaining the party’s endorsement of a judicial candidate.  Fla. JEAC Ops. 04-09; 98-19; 84-22.  Section 105.071(3) restricts a judicial candidate from publicly representing or advertising herself or himself as a member of any political party.  § 105.071, Fla. Stat. (2011).

    The key issue to resolve the inquiring judicial candidate’s inquiry is whether the Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly is a “political organization” for which the restrictions of the Code of Judicial Conduct would apply.  The Code of Judicial Conduct defines a “political organization” as “a political party or other group, the principal purpose of which is to further the election or appointment of candidates for political office.” 

In Fla. JEAC Op. 10-20, the Committee opined that “Organizing for America,” an organization whose stated goal was to “alleviate political apathy and increase support for the Democratic party,” and which centered itself around political activism favoring the Democratic Party’s earlier plans for national health care reform, the stimulus package, and mobilizing supporters in favor of President Obama’s legislative agenda, was a political organization.  Similarly, in Fla. JEAC Op. 10-19, the Committee concluded that a local “Patriot” group and the “Tea Party Patriots” were political organizations as their stated missions as publicized on their websites were political activism and ongoing participation in current political electoral processes of the Tea Party on both a national and local level – either as a grass roots movement or as a registered political party.  In Fla. JEAC Op. 10-19, the Committee explained that political parties or political organizations are distinguishable from other organizations such as the League of Women Voters which merely have political interests because the principal purposes of political parties or political organizations are “to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office.”

The official website for the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies of Florida states “[w]e are an incorporated Republican, conservative organization dedicated to the support of conservative candidates and values with the Republican Party.” http://www.reaganclubs.us (last visited July 31, 2012).  The physical location of the forum is at the headquarters of a partisan candidate who will be on the ballot this year.  The Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly therefore meets the definition of a “political organization” for purposes of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  As such, the judicial candidate should not attend the organization’s forum if the organization’s purpose is to endorse a judicial candidate as this could give the appearance that the judicial candidate is representing herself/himself as a member of a political party in violation of section 105.071(3), Florida Statutes.  Fla. JEAC Ops. 98-19, 84-22.  If the organization’s purpose is to endorse a judicial candidate, then by attending the forum the judicial candidate would be directly taking an affirmative action to obtain the endorsement of a political organization which would violate Canon 7 and section 105.071(1), Florida Statutes.  Fla. JEAC Op. 04-09.  It is worth noting that the Florida Supreme Court has strictly construed the law relating to judicial elections and stressed that judicial candidates should not be involved in partisan politics.  See In re Alley, 699 So. 2d 1369 (Fla. 1997) (disciplining a newly elected judge for, inter alia, injecting party politics into a nonpartisan election by noting the party affiliation of the governor who has appointed her opponent to her position of county judge).

REFERENCES

§ 105.071, Fla. Stat. (2011).

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct Canons 7A(1)(d), 7C(3).

In re Alley, 699 So. 2d 1369 (Fla. 1997).

Fla. JEAC Ops. 84-22, 98-19, 02-11, 04-09, 04-11, 06-15, 10-19, 10-20.

_____________


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 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. See 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. See Id.

The Committee expresses no view on whether any proposed conduct of an inquiring judge is consistent with substantive law which governs any proceeding over which the inquiring judge may preside. The Committee only has authority to interpret the Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore its opinions deal only with the issue of whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact the Committee Chair: Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Fourth District Court of Appeal, 1525 Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, West Palm Beach, Florida 33401.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Robert T. Benton, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Jack Espinosa, Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Judge T. Michael Jones, Judge Barbara Lagoa, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge C. McFerrin Smith, III, Judge Richard R. Townsend, and Judge Dorothy Vaccaro.


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
Justice Charles T. Canady
Thomas D. Hall, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator

 

1.The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has appointed an Election Practices Subcommittee. The purpose of this Subcommittee is to give immediate responses to campaign questions in instances where the normal Committee procedure would not provide a response in time to be useful to the inquiring candidate or judge. Although the opinion was prepared by the Subcommittee on an expedited basis, it received full Committee review and approval before being issued. Opinions designated with the “(Election)” notation are opinions of the Election Practices Subcommittee of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, and have the same authority as an opinion of the whole Committee.