Florida Supreme Court

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

 

Opinion Number: 98-8

Date of Issue: May 28, 1998

 

JUDGE'S MEMBERSHIP ON A VICTIM'S RIGHTS COUNCIL

 

ISSUE

May a judge ethically belong to a victim's rights council which, among other things, sponsors (unofficial) training for judges; reviews judicial rulings and decisions relating to sentences, referrals to batterers' intervention programs, the ordering of child support, etc.; and supports bills and legislation?

ANSWER: No. Membership in such an organization would cast a reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge.

FACTS

The inquiring judge describes the Family Violence Council of _______ County, Florida as a victimís rights organization. This committee is advised that the organization has neither written by-laws, a mission statement, nor stated goals or objectives.

A review of its most recent minutes supports the inquiring judge's description of the Council. Among other things, the Council sponsors (unofficial) training for judges; reviews judicial rulings and decisions relating to sentences, referrals to batterers' intervention programs, the ordering of child support, etc.; and supports bills and legislation.

The February 25, 1998, minutes of the Family Violence Council of ______ includes the following:

Susan expressed frustration that everyone but the judges attends Family Violence Council meetings. Susan offered to chair a membership committee that would be responsible for encouraging judges to attend meetings using the art of gentle persistence. Susan also told the Council she would send out a letter this week inviting them to future Council meetings and would like the committee to follow up the letter with an in-person invitation.

* * *

Susan encouraged the Council to write letters to the Task Force and to legislators in support of bills that help reduce domestic violence. The Council expressed interest in writing a letter to the Task Force encouraging them to propose a bill that would make it a crime to disable a telephone while the victim is trying to call for help while the batterer is beating her.

The judge seeks this committee's opinion as to whether membership in the Council violates Floridaís Code of Judicial Conduct.

DISCUSSION

Canon 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct permits a judge to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of Justice. Canon 4A provides:

A judge shall conduct all of the judgeís quasi-judicial activities so that they do not:

  1. cast reasonable doubt on the judges' capacity to act impartially as a judge;
  2. demean the judicial office; or
  3. interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties [emphasis added]

The Commentary to Canon 4A states that judges are "encouraged to participate in activities designed to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice." However, a judge's participation is not unfettered where the activities "cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially." Canon 4A; See, Opinion 97-31.

Judges are obligated to perform their duties diligently and impartially. See, Canon 3. Further, judges shall at all times act in a manner that promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. See, Canon 2A.

In the past, this committee has opined that service on a task force is at times ethically permissible. See, Opinion 94-33 (Service on a task force, such as a Domestic Violence Task Force, is ethically permissible with the understanding that the activities of the task force are "law related and gender neutral."). At other times, service on a task force is ethically precluded. See, 94-38; 94-32; and 91-22 (Service on the Florida Battered Womenís Clemency Project is ethically precluded, in part because it was not gender neutral and such service potentially violated the "impartially" requirements of Canon 2A and Canon 5B.);

This committee's former chairman, Judge Steve Rushing, aptly noted in Opinion 94-38 that "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." This committee again adopts and endorses Judge Rushing's comment.

In agreeing with this advisory opinion, one member of this committee notes, "If we are to maintain an independent judiciary, we must resist any efforts to use 'gentle persistence' to involve judges in the political side of issues that come before us."

A review of the Council's activities leads this committee to conclude that the judge's membership on the Council is precluded by the Code of Judicial Conduct. Membership on the Council would cast a reasonable doubt on the judgeís capacity to act impartially.

 

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct: Canons 2A, 3, 4, 4A, and 5B

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 97-31; 94-38; 94-33; 94-32; and 91-22.

__________________

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 by the Committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, Opinion No. 90,133 (Fla. September 4, 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualification Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. Id.

For further information, contact The Honorable Scott J. Silverman, Chairman, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, The Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, 1351 NW 12th Street #513, Miami, Florida 33125.

Participating Members: Judges Dell, Charles J. Kahn, Lisa D. Kahn, Rushing, Silverman, Smith, and Tolton.

Copies furnished to:

Justice Charles T. Wells
All Committee Members
All Members of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator (Name of judge deleted from this copy)