September 12, 1994


(OPINION 94-38

(Participation in Dosestic Violence Task Force

Re: Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges
Your Inquiry dated August 8, 1994

You have asked the committee to render an opinion on the appropriateness of your participation in a Domestic Violence Task Force created by Governor Chiles and chaired by the Executive Director of a local domestic violence shelter. Said shelter apparently serves female victims exclusively and maintains a "court watch" program on domestic battery cases. You are the sole judge handling all battery cases that arise from domestic situations in a large part of you country. You are concerned that given the present leadership of the committee, your participation may give the appearance to litigants in your court that you are not impartial.

Although not in response to a direct inquiry, in Opinion 94-33, this Committee indicated that service on such a task force is ethically permissible with the understanding that the activities of the task force were "law related and gender neutral." In Opinion 94-32, we indicated that a judge should not serve on the Florida Battered Women's Clemency Project, in part because the Project would not be gender neutral and such service may violate the "impartially" requirements of Canon 2 A and Canon 5 B. Additionally, Opinion 91-22 held that membership by a judge in Women in Distress, a quasi governmental organization providing shelter, food, clothing and counseling to battered women and their children would be in violation of Canons 3 C, 5 B, and 2 A and B, since involvement could detract from the judge's role as an impartial magistrate.

Although there is no blanket prohibition on a judge serving on a Domestic Violence Task Force, in light of the caveat in the comments on Canon 5 B (1)(A) that a judge must regularly re-examine the propriety of continued membership in an organization concerning racial, ethic and gender issues and the resulting perceived impression of the agenda of the organizations within a community are valid and proper factors for a judge to consider in evaluating membership. The current assignment of a judge and the frequency of the appearenance of the organization or it membership or its membership in court are also factors which must be considered on a case by case basis.

Since the domestic violence shelter which the chairperson serves as executive director is evidently similar in function and purpose to the Women in Distress Shelter, addressed in Opinion 91-22, the potential exist that upon request you may have to disqualify yourself from spouse battery cases before you in which the victim has received services from the shelter in question. As the only judge handling battery cases that arise out of domestic situations in part of a country, there is thus the potential creation of interference with the performance of judicial duties through increased and burdensome recusals.

Therefore, under the particular circumstance of this inquiry, six members of the Committee would advise you not to participate in this task force at this time. Although judges are opposed to domestic battery in any form, a judge should not feel forced or pressured to serve on any "voluntary" committee or organizations that he or she feels may create interference with the performance of judicial duties.

Four members of the Committee, although agreeing that you could decline to serve on such a task force under your particular circumstances, do not believe you would have to recuse yourself from spouse battery cases in which the victim has received assistance from the shelter simply because the executive director of the shelter also serves as chairman of the task force. They point out that service on such a task force is similar to serving on the Gender Bias Commission or the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and that they would find no ethical impropriety in serving on such a committee under these circumstances.

The 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 judges, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions by the Committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 327 So.2d 5 (Fla. 1976).

Very truly yours,

Steve Rushing, Chairman
Committee on Standards of Conduct
Governing Judges

CC: All Committee Members
Office of the State Courts Administrator
(Name of judge deleted from this copy)

Participating Members:Judges Dell, Doughtie, Farina, Green, Kahn, Patterson, Rushing, Taylor, Tolton, and Edwards, Esq.