May 16th, 1983

Opinion No. 83/5
Honorary membership in a yacht club

Dear Judge

This is in response to your inquiry of February 2, 1983. You state that a yacht club gives "honorary memberships" to public officials in your county. The membership entitles an individual to use the yacht club facilities and to pay monthly for any food or drink consumed. The honorary member has no voting privileges. A regular voting membership in the club involves payment of a membership fee in the amount of some $350.00 per year. You want to know if you may accept an honorary membership.

Of the seven members of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges who responded to this inquiry, all were unanimous that you may not accept this membership. Despite the unanimity, the members agreed your inquiry raises several questions which ought to be answered.

In Opinion 78/17 a city had a policy of only charging public officials one half the yearly golf course membership fee required for residents. Eight members responded to the judge's inquiry. Two members found there was no prohibition to accepting this benefit, but stated it should be reported as a gift. Three of the members felt that because the interests of the city were likely to come before the judge in the immediate future, Canon 5 proscribed acceptance of the reduced fee. The remaining three members stated the Canon clearly prohibited acceptance of the reduced fee.

One of our members pointed out, however, the result in 78/17 might have been different were it not for the fear that the city would be a frequent litigant before the judge. The same member also raised the question of whether a judge could accept a membership if it was offered to him individually, as opposed to being offered to all judges. Canon 5C(4)(c) provides as follows:

"a judge may accept any other gift, bequest, favor, or loan only if the donor is not a party or other person whose interests have recently come or may likely come before him, in the immediate future, and, if its value exceeds $100, the judge reports it in the manner prescribed in Canon 6."

In Opinion 74/9 we responded to an inquiry as to whether a waiver of a membership fee of an ascertainable amount should be reported as a gift. We answered in the affirmative, without any reference to the propriety of accepting the gift.

There is no restriction on a judge accepting a gift, even a very valuable gift, so long as Canon 5C(4)(c) is complied with. Thus, a judge could accept a membership in the yacht club, or a yacht for that matter, so long as he complies with Canon 5C(4)(c) and the gift is offered to him only.

It is a different story, however, when all judges, or all public officials, are so favored. An individual gift, to an individual judge is proper. There is impropriety when all judges in an area or on a court are given a free membership, or any other gift. It really does not matter whether the donor is a city, a private club, or private individual. Friendship is not the motive for the gift in those cases. It is simply an attempt to curry favor with the court or other public officials, or to garner the prestige of those offices. In the case of a yacht club or country club, the free memberships present the appearance that the donor has the ear of the public official. The gifts of membership convey the impression to the rest of the community that membership in the club presents the opportunity to hobnob with public officials and to bask in their favor. It is a dubious proposition that this is acceptable for the other branches of the government. It is simply not permitted the judiciary. It violates Canon 2B.

The fact that the memberships are offered to all public officials in no wise dilutes the suggestion of impropriety. It is precisely the inclusion of every public official that is the attempt to curry favor or garner the prestige of the office.

To be distinguished are the "memberships" offered state, county and municipal employees at various attractions such as Disney World, Sea World, etc. These allow reduced entrance fees and discounts, etc. Inasmuch as these are available to employees as well as officials, to the janitor who empties the judge's waste basket, as well as the judge, it cannot be said there is any attempt to garner the prestige of the office or to curry favor. The members did not see any impropriety in a judge accepting these benefits.


Yours truly,

James T. Carlisle
Chairman, Committee on Standards
of Conduct Governing Judges


Copies to:

All Committee members
Sid White, Clerk of Court, Florida Supreme Court
Linda Yates, Managing Editor, Florida Bar Journal
Mark Hulsey, Esq., Chairman, Judicial Qualifications Commission
Hon. Howard T. Markey, Chairman, Ethics Advisory Panel of the Judicial Conference of the.
United States
Scott Rueter, Research Assistant, The Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations


November 30, 1983

Reconsideration of Opinion No. 83/5

Dear Judge

After Opinion 85/3 was issued, the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges was advised of Federal Opinion No. 47. That opinion states in pertinent part:

"He must also consider whether the offer of the honorary membership is designed to exploit his judicial position. Just as a judge may not utilize the power and prestige of his office to persuade others to contribute to a charitable enterprise, he must be sure that the honorary membership is not being offered to persuade others to become members of the club, or lend the prestige of his office to advance the private interests of the club.

If the club offers such memberships to a broader group of public servants than judges, i.e. legislators, clergy, etc. or if it has a tradition of extending such memberships and offers them to all persons holding that position, there is less likelihood that the appearance of influencing the judge will arise. If he has not previously been a member of the club and is not singled out for such treatment, he should consider carefully how the receipt of this gift membership may appear to others. The judge must be especially cautious in this respect, if the officers or directors or the members of the committee conferring such membership are attorneys practicing before him whereby the membership could convey the impression that some lawyers are in a special position to influence."

It was also brought to our attention that the Florida Supreme Court, sitting in conference, "consider(ed) the interpretation by the Federal Judiciary Conference to be consistent with the intent and purpose of Canon 5C(4)(c)."

With this additional information in hand, the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges met in Cocoa Beach on September 18, 1983, to discuss this matter. It was the consensus of a majority of the Committee that the purpose of offering honorary memberships to all public officials or all judicial officers is to exploit the judicial position, to persuade others to become members of the club, to lend the prestige of the office to advance the private interests of the club. It was the consensus of the majority that Opinion No. 47's statement that the practice of offering membership to a broad group of public servants results in less likelihood that the appearance of influencing the judge will arise is at least a non sequitur. On the contrary, our experience with the human equation leads us to believe the public perception of this practice would lead to the conclusion that the club had purchased "a broader group of public servants than judges," and that there was more likelihood (of) the appearance of influencing a large segment of the judiciary.

After lengthy discussion the majority of the members of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges felt our original Opinion No. 83/5 to be correct, despite Federal Opinion No. 47 and the views of the Florida Supreme court. Basically, we felt that a judge could not accept a gift if it was offered to other public officials. We felt that the gift was offered to capture the prestige, the goodwill, the ear of a broad range of public officials.

To be distinguished are gifts, even expensive gifts, offered by friends. These can always be accepted so long as they are reported. It might become necessary for the judge to recuse himself, but the judge ought to recuse himself in any case if the friendship is a close one. Also to be distinguished are discounts, free admissions, etc. offered to all public employees. Obviously, judges can take advantage of these without violating the Canon.


Yours truly,

James T. Carlisle
Chairman, Committee on Standards
of Conduct Governing Judges


Copies to:

All Committee members
Sid White, Clerk of Court, Florida Supreme Court
Linda Yates, Managing Editor, Florida Bar Journal
Mark Hulsey, Esq., Chairman, Judicial Qualifications Commission
Hon. Howard T. Markey, Chairman, Ethics Advisory Panel of the Judicial Conference of the.
United States
Scott Rueter, Research Assistant, The Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations