FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2014-08
Date of Issue: April 14, 2014

ISSUE

Question 1:  Whether a judicial candidate may attend an event sponsored by a political party, at which all candidates in the inquiring judicial candidate's race have been invited to speak?

ANSWER: Yes.

Question 2:  May the judicial candidate pay for a table or advertisement in the organization's bulletin, the cost of which is being used to pay for the event?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

A judicial candidate is running for election as a judge in a contested race.  A representative of an organization labeling itself as a "party" and including the name of the county in which the event is to take place has invited the candidate and represented that all candidates in the judicial race have been invited to attend and speak.

The organization labeling itself as a political party bears the same name as a party which is recognized, on a statewide level, as a political party by the Division of Elections of the Florida Secretary of State.

Through a form provided to the candidate and provided to the Committee with the candidate's inquiry, each candidate is given the opportunity to sponsor a table at the event, for $100, and purchase an advertisement in the organization's bulletin for between $75 and $450.  The organization represented to the inquiring candidate the funds collected from the candidates are not for the purpose of fund raising for the organization but will be used to pay for the event.

The sponsor indicates that candidates are not required to sponsor a table or purchase an invitation in order to attend and speak at the event.

DISCUSSION

This proposed appearance is governed by Canon 7C(3), of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which provides:

A judicial candidate involved in an election or re-election, or a merit retention candidate who has certified that he or she has active opposition, 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 function must not be a fund raiser, and the invitation to speak must also include the other candidates, if any, for that office. The candidate should refrain from commenting on the candidate's affiliation with any political party or other candidate, and should avoid expressing a position on any political issue.  A judicial candidate attending a political party function must avoid conduct that suggests or appears to suggest support of or opposition to a political party, a political issue, or another candidate. Conduct limited to that described above does not constitute participation in a partisan political party activity.

The Code does not define "political party."  In this case, the sponsoring organization refers to itself as a "party" and bears the same name as an entity which is registered as a political party with the Division of Elections.  Therefore, the Committee concludes that the sponsoring organization is a "political party" as that term is utilized in the Code.

In order for the event at which the candidate has been invited to speak to meet the conditions imposed by Canon 7C(3): (i) all candidates must be invited to speak; and (ii) the event must not be a fund raiser.

Facts submitted to the Committee as a part of a request are accepted as true for the purpose of providing an opinion.

However, it is each candidate's responsibility, before attending an event subject to Canon 7C(3), to verify that the conditions imposed by the Canon are met.

In this case, with respect to the requirement that all candidates be invited, the candidate states that the person conveying the invitation to the event confirmed that the other candidates in the race had been invited to speak at the event.

The Committee will not specify how a candidate is required to confirm that all candidates have been invited.  However, a candidate who relies upon second-hand information on the issue, in this case from the sponsor of the event, rather than contacting all candidates in the race to confirm that each of them has been invited, assumes the risk that the information the candidate has been provided is inaccurate, or that a factual dispute arises concerning whether the invitation was extended or not.  Therefore, and in light of the ease of communication by email, it is recommended that each candidate, upon receiving such an invitation, contact the other candidates to confirm that each of them has been invited.

With respect to the requirement that the function must not be a fundraiser, the candidate has furnished to the Committee a form from the sponsoring organization inviting candidates to sponsor tables and purchase advertisements in a program for the event.  The sponsor of the event has stated to the candidate that it is not a fundraiser and that the opportunity to sponsor tables and purchase advertisements are for the purpose of fundraising but only for the purpose of paying the expenses of the event.

The Committee is not in a position to make a judgment on this issue.  Each candidate must assess the circumstances of the event and its probable costs, and the amounts which are proposed for the table sponsorship and the advertisements, in order to determine whether the function is a fund raiser, and thus be disqualified as a function which the candidate may attend.

If the candidate verifies that the conditions of Canon 7C(3) are met, the candidate may attend and speak at the event.

The candidate's second question, concerning whether the candidate may sponsor a table and purchase an advertisement in the event's program, raise the issue of what actions which must be taken or avoided in order to assure that the candidate's attendance are not construed to be political or partisan. 

As the Committee has opined in Fla. JEAC Op. 98-17, a candidate, in attending such an event, should be cautious that his or her presence, remarks and/or actions are not construed by others to be political or partisan.

The Committee believes that the sponsorship of a table at the event, or the purchase of an advertisement in the program for the event, would reasonably be construed by others to suggest that the candidate supports the political party sponsoring the event.  Therefore, the candidate should not sponsor a table or pay for an advertisement in the program.
With respect to any other questions concerning the event or the campaign, the Committee refers the candidate to the website of the 6th Judicial Circuit, where all of the opinions of the Committee may be found.

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct Canons 7C(3).
Fla. JEAC Ops. 98-17.

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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, Robert T. Benton, II, 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 R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro. 


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