FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2014-04
Date of Issue: February 14, 2014

ISSUES

1. May a candidate’s campaign account, for which the candidate is the treasurer, pay for the management of a website maintained by the candidate’s committee?

ANSWER: Yes.

2. May the candidate personally oversee the design and content of the website?

ANSWER: Yes.

3. May the candidate personally oversee a paid communications firm that is managing the website?

ANSWER: Yes.

4. May a principal of the committee’s paid communications firm managing the website be on the candidate’s committee of responsible persons?

ANSWER: Yes.

5. May the website contain a link permitting direct contributions to the candidate’s campaign through the website?

ANSWER: Yes, so long as the contributions are solicited by a committee of responsible persons.

6. May a single committee member oversee the website?

ANSWER: Yes.

 

FACTS

An attorney, who is a candidate for judicial office, contemplates creating and managing a website to be maintained by the candidate’s committee. The candidate is the treasurer of the campaign account which will be the source of the funds for the website. The website is to be designated “Committee to Elect [candidate]” and will have a link permitting contributions to the campaign. The candidate also contemplates hiring a communications firm to manage the website. A committee member is a principal in the communications firm.

 

DISCUSSION

The inquiring candidate is concerned about personal involvement in creating and maintaining a website because of this Committee’s prior opinion in Fla. JEAC Op. 2008-11. In that opinion this Committee opined that a campaign website could not make reference to nor facilitate the giving of financial or other support if it were the judge’s personal website. However, if the website was “created and maintained” by a committee of responsible persons it would be permissible to seek financial and other support.

Florida JEAC 2008-11 was issued in response to an inquiry regarding a judge creating and maintaining a website which would seek contributions and support. The website was a personal website and made no reference to a committee of responsible persons. This Committee correctly opined that Canon 7C(1) clearly requires that solicitation of contributions or support must be made by a committee, and not the candidate. This Committee clarifies this opinion to eliminate any suggestion that the candidate’s campaign account may not pay for the website, that the candidate may not create and design the website, or that the candidate may not hire a communications firm to perform these tasks. However, Fla. JEAC Op. 2008-11 is correct in opining that the solicitation of contributions and support, whether it be through a website or otherwise, must be made by a committee of responsible persons, and not by the candidate.

A judicial campaign, like any other campaign for public office, is supported by the candidate’s personal resources and contributions from supporters, whether it be financial or otherwise. Financial contributions and expenditures are carefully regulated by Florida Statutes which generally provide that all campaign contributions and expenditures must pass through a campaign account and be timely reported. Pursuant to section 106.021(1)(c), Florida Statutes, the candidate may serve as campaign treasurer. Whether or not the candidate is treasurer of the campaign account, it is the ultimate responsibility of the candidate to ensure compliance with Florida law and the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Unlike other candidates for public office, a judicial candidate is bound by Canon 7C(1) which provides that a candidate may not personally solicit campaign funds or solicit attorneys for publicly stated support. However, a candidate may (emphasis added) establish committees of responsible persons to secure and manage the expenditure of funds for the candidate’s campaign. These committees may also solicit campaign contributions and public support from any person or organization authorized by law. There is no language in Canon 7 that would prohibit a candidate from being campaign treasurer, directing or managing the campaign (including its website), making campaign expenditures for campaign expenses, or advising or giving direction to a committee of responsible persons, whose responsibility would be to do what the candidate cannot personally do, that is, seek contributions or solicit attorneys for publicly stated support.

The candidate also would like for potential contributors to respond by making direct contributions to the candidate’s campaign through a link in the website. So long as the contributions are solicited by the committee, and the contributions are payable to the “Committee to Elect [candidate],” the receipt of the funds would be within the scope of Canon 7.      

Finally, the candidate asks if a single member of the committee of responsible persons may oversee the website. The Code contemplates a committee of responsible persons, which suggests that the committee should be composed of more than one person. However, nothing in the Code precludes the committee from delegating various responsibilities to a single committee member.

No issue presented by the candidate involves direct solicitation of funds or support by the candidate. So long as the solicitation of contributions or support through a website is a solicitation from a committee of responsible persons, it matters little whether the website is created and managed by the candidate or a committee which is subject to the candidate’s direction and control.

 

REFERENCES

Florida Statutes, Section 106.021(1)(c)

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7C(1)

Fla. JEAC Op. 2008-11

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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. 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 Judge Roberto Arias, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Duval County Courthouse, 501 West Adams Street, Room 7180, Jacksonville, Florida 32202-4603.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Robert T. Benton, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Jack Espinosa, Jr., Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Judge T. Michael Jones, Judge Barbara Lagoa, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Michael Raiden, Judge Richard 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