FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2016-14
Date of Issue: September 1, 2016

ISSUES

Whether a judge may directly solicit donations of used books for use by inmates at the local jail library?

ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge has been taking used paperback books to a local jail for use in the inmate library. The judge would like to step up this effort by asking for donations of used books from the local bar association membership and asking attorneys to drop the used books off at the judge’s office for the judge to deliver to the jail. The judge would also like to post on the judge’s Facebook page that the judge wants to collect people’s used books to take to the jail.

 

DISCUSSION

We opine that neither a judge nor the judge’s court personnel may solicit donations of used books to be brought to the judge or the judge’s office for delivery to the jail. Although we assume the judge is acting with the best intentions and certainly for a good cause, we conclude that the course of conduct proposed by the judge is prohibited by the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.

The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 4A, requires that a judge conduct all quasi-judicial activities so that they do not:

(1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge;

(2) undermine the judge’s independence, integrity or impartiality;

. . .

(6) appear to a reasonable person to be coercive.

Canon 5A places the same restraints on a judge’s extra-judicial activities.

Soliciting donations from groups or persons who appear before the judge, such as members of the local bar association, and requesting that the donations be delivered to the judge or the judge’s office may convey the impression that the judge will favor those who donate. Likewise, soliciting donations from groups or persons on the judge’s Facebook page, regardless of whether those groups or persons appear before the judge, also may appear to be coercive to those who are not inclined to donate but who fear the judge’s disfavor if they do not donate, particularly when the judge is requesting that the donations be delivered to the judge or the judge’s office.

We reached a similar conclusion in Fla. JEAC Op. 07-05. There, the inquiring judge asked whether a judge who presides over drug court may solicit or receive “incentive gifts” such as sporting event tickets, movie passes, and gift certificates from lawyers or law firms for use as rewards to drug court participants. We opined that such conduct was prohibited by Canon 5D(5)(h) (“A judge shall not accept . . . a gift . . . from anyone except . . . if: the donor is not a party or other person who has come or is likely to come or whose interests have come or are likely to come before the judge . . . . ”) We reasoned:

[W]hile the inquiring judge asks about gifts to be given Drug Court participants, the canons make no distinction regarding the purpose of the gift. The acceptance of gifts, for any purpose, from lawyers or law firms who are likely to come before the judge may exploit the judge’s judicial position, provide grounds to question the judge’s impartiality, convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge and create a potential for disqualification.

Notwithstanding the laudable purpose for which the inquiring judge seeks to acquire incentive gifts for the Drug Court participants, the Committee is of the opinion that the judge may not accept such donations from lawyers or law firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge. Further, the judge is ethically obligated to instruct court personnel to act in a manner consistent with the judge’s ethical duties and obligations by directing them not to accept such donations.

Fla. JEAC Op. 07-05; see also Fla. JEAC Op. 07-18 (judge may not solicit businesses for donations of coupons and gift certificates to be used as rewards for juveniles on probation); Fla. JEAC Op. 92-38 (judge may not be involved in the solicitation of donations of coats and gloves for the homeless); compare Fla. JEAC Op. 13-05 (neither inquiring dependency judge nor the judge’s personnel involved in soliciting items for children to play with while the children are in court, or the use of the items once donated).

For the same reasons as expressed in Fla. JEAC Op. 07-05, we conclude that the judge may not solicit donations of used books from the local bar association or from persons who read the judge’s Facebook page when the donations are intended to be delivered to the judge for the judge to take to the jail. In rendering this opinion, we express no position on whether the judge may otherwise promote the donation of used books to a jail library without the judge or the judge’s courtroom personnel being directly involved in the solicitation or receipt of those donations. See, e.g., Fla. JEAC Op. 13-05.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct Canons 4A, 5A & 5D(5)(h).
Fla. JEAC Ops. 13-05, 07-18, 07-05, & 92-38.

_____________


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 of 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 whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact Judge Spencer D. Levine, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Fourth District Court of Appeal, 1525 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL 33401

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge W. Joel Boles, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Miguel de la O, Judge James A. Edwards, Mark Herron, Esquire, Judge Barbara Lagoa, Judge Spencer D. Levine, Judge K. Douglas Henderson, Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Michael Raiden.


All Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opinions, subject matter indices, and a search engine are available on the Sixth Circuit’s website at www.jud6.org under Opinions. Committee opinions and related finding tools are also accessible on the Florida Supreme Court’s website at www.floridasupremecourt.org as a secondary posting under Court Opinions.


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