FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2019-24
Date of Issue: September 5, 2019

ISSUES

1. Whether a judge should disqualify himself or herself from all cases involving an insurance company which has amicably settled a claim made by the judge.

ANSWER: No. Unless there is reason to believe that the circumstances surrounding the settlement would cause prejudice on the part of the judge or that favorable treatment was given to the judge, no reason for automatic disqualification exists.

2. Whether a judge should disclose to the parties that the judge made a claim against an insurer who is a party to case before the judge.

ANSWER: Yes. The judge should disclose the existence of the claim and its settlement for a reasonable period of time after its occurrence.

 

FACTS

A judge was involved in a traffic accident. The judge advises that both the driver who was at fault in the collision and the judge were insured by the same insurance company. The insurance company, on behalf of the other driver, offered a settlement of the claim, which settlement offer was accepted by the judge. The judge now inquires whether disqualification is required in all cases involving the same insurer which may be assigned to the judge, and further inquires whether disclosure that a settlement was reached is required if disqualification is not necessary.

 

DISCUSSION

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 3E(1) requires a judge to disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Subsection (1) provides a list of specific instances in which automatic disqualification is required. The issue raised by the judge in this inquiry does not fit within any of the examples given in the code, but subsection (1) makes clear that circumstances requiring disqualification are not limited to the specific examples listed within Canon 3E(1), so the facts must be analyzed in light of the intent of the rules that even the appearance of impropriety be avoided.

The judge making this inquiry made a claim against an insurance company in the regular course of its business. The claim was settled as a routine matter and without controversy. There is nothing in the judge's letter of inquiry that would indicate any reason to suspect animosity between the insurer and the judge, nor are there any circumstances which should give rise to belief that the judge received any favorable treatment from the insurance company. There is therefore no reason for the judge to be automatically disqualified from presiding over cases involving the insurance company that paid the claim.

Although disqualification is not required, the commentary to Canon 3E(1) suggests that a judge should disclose on the record any information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might consider relevant to the question of disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no real basis for disqualification. Even if a party receiving such information requests disqualification of the judge upon receipt of such information, disqualification is not automatically required. Each such request must be considered on its own merits. W. I. v. State, 696 So.2d 457 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997).

Due to the direct dealings between the judge and the insurance company appearing before the judge, and the recent nature of the dealings, the committee believes that the judge should, in any case in which the insurance company making the settlement is involved, disclose the existence of the settlement to the parties for a reasonable period of time following the settlement. The length of that reasonable period of time depends upon the unique facts and circumstances of each case, but the committee has suggested in other cases that a reasonable period of time might be from several months to one year. See e.g. Fla. JEAC Ops. 12-09 and 11-17.

 

REFERENCES

W. I. v. State, 696 So.2d 457 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997)

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 3E(1)

Commentary to Canon 3E(1), Fla. Code Jud. Conduct

Fla. JEAC Ops. 12-09, 11-17

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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 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 W. Joel Boles, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Chair, First Circuit M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building, 190 Governmental Center, 6th Floor, Pensacola, FL 32502 or JEAC@flcourts.org.

Participating Members:
Judge Michael Andrews, Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge W. Joel Boles, Judge Miguel de la O, Judge James A. Edwards, Judge David Green, Mark Herron, Esquire, Judge Jeffrey T. Kuntz, Judge Matthew C. Lucas, Judge Michael Raiden, and Charles Reynolds, Esquire.

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
General Counsel of the JQC
Melissa Hamilton, Staff Counsel