FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2017-04
Date of Issue: March 7, 2017

ISSUES

1. May a judge allow law-related organizations and a private law firm to jointly host a free post-seminar reception at the judges’ courthouse?

ANSWER: Yes.

2. May a judge accept food/drink provided by the organizations/law firm at such an event?

ANSWER: Yes.

 

FACTS

The inquiring judge has organized, for judges and attorneys, a free diversity training seminar which will take place at the judge’s courthouse. Continuing Legal Education and Continuing Judicial Education credit hours are expected to be awarded. The Circuit’s Chief Judge has approved this event and use of the courthouse, as well as approving informative fliers prepared by the inquiring judge which were distributed by the judge and fellow judges in their respective hearing rooms.

Three local law-related organizations and a local personal injury firm have contacted the judge and offered to jointly host a free post-seminar reception for all of the anticipated 200-400 seminar attendees. The organizations consist of a legal aid group, a women lawyers association, and an African-American lawyer association. Both of the latter two groups are open to all Florida attorneys. The judge has not solicited any of these groups or the firm to host the reception, and none of them have any special relationship with any of the judges (federal and state) who will be presenting at the seminar. Light food/drink items (possibly hors d’oeuvres and/or alcoholic beverages) may also be provided.

 

DISCUSSION

Diversity training is mandatory for judges; organization and participation in such a free program (as opposed to a fund-raising seminar) is permitted and indeed encouraged. Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 4B; see also Fla. JEAC Op. 87-3 (A judge may participate in a legal seminar which is sponsored by a private law firm); Fla. JEAC Op. 99-27 (A judge may attend, but not participate, in a bench/bar professionalism seminar when the event includes fund-raising).

Free courthouse seminars are commonplace. As to the use of the judge’s courthouse for this seminar, this Committee sees no impropriety as set forth in Canon 2B (“A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.”).

The judge is also inquiring about the appropriateness of accepting any food/drink provided by the hosts at the reception. Canon 5D(5) of the Code prohibits gifts that judges may receive, with several exceptions. One such exception permits a judge to accept a gift 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; and if its value exceeds $100.00, the judge reports it in the same manner as the judge reports compensation in Canon 6B. To the extent that any small food/drink items are consumed by the judge, a majority of this committee feel that such are inconsequential and do not constitute a gift.

Four of the twelve committee members believe that the food/drink provided by the hosts is a gift to the judge pursuant to Canon 5D which may be accepted (subject to the donor “not likely to come before the judge” restrictions set forth in the Canon), and must be reported if the aggregate value of the food/drink exceeds the $100.00 threshold. In Op. 99-3, the committee approved a judge’s former law firm sponsoring and paying for an investiture reception and related expenses, and opined that the total expenses should be reported as a gift. The majority in this committee, however, see a significant distinction between a judge’s personal investiture reception and a judge’s organization of a law-related seminar for purposes of determining what constitutes a gift.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canons 2B, 4B, 5D.

Fla. JEAC Ops. 14-01, 99-27, 99-3, 87-3,

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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 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