Opinion Number: 99-5
Date of Issue: February 9, 1999
WHETHER A JUDGE MAY WRITE AN UNSOLICITED LETTER OF COMMENDATION TO
A NEWSPAPER TO RECOGNIZE SOCIAL SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS FOR PROVIDING SERVICES
TO PERSONS APPEARING BEFORE THE JUDGE?
Whether a judge may write an unsolicited letter of commendation to a
newspaper to recognize social service organizations for providing social
services to persons appearing before the judge?
The inquiring judge wishes to write an unsolicited letter to a newspaper
recognizing various social services groups/agencies that have provided assistance
to persons appearing before the judge. The groups mentioned provide assistance
for health care problems, for victims of domestic violence, and for persons
in need of food, clothing or shelter.
The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 2(B), directs that 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 Committee has, however, approved letters of recognition or praise as long as the letter would not be used in a commercial context or in fund-raising for the organization. In Opinion 94-25 the Committee approved the publication of an article by a judge commending the efforts of local officials who cooperated in handling a particularly sensitive trial.
In 93-1 the Committee also approved a judge writing a letter of support for the placement of a prelaw magnet program at a high school. The Committee found the judge could make the recommendation because the program may contribute to the improvement of the legal system and the administration of justice, and the letter did not solicit funds. The Committee did not believe a limited letter of support for a public school law program for the benefit of the community would be considered lending the prestige of office to advance the private interest of others. However, the Committee did suggest that any support letter should contain a disclaimer that the letter is not written for the purpose of soliciting funds. In Opinion 95-44 the Committee disapproved of a similar letter when the judge's letter was to be used for commercial gain. The judge had been requested to write a positive letter about the judge's education at a local high school. The comments were going to be printed on a professionally printed display. The display would be featured in various businesses such as real estate offices where potential customers could be made aware that they need not fear purchasing homes in the school district where their child would be assigned to go to school. All eight responding members agreed that the activity would be prohibited under Canon 2 as it would be lending the prestige of judicial offices to advance the private interests of the school. See also Opinion 97-16. The Committee found that the inquiring judge could not endorse a law related curriculum project developed by a local newspaper because it appeared that the endorsement would be used in fund-raising and that it would also promote the newspaper that was providing materials to the students.
In the present inquiry, the social service programs have contributed to the improvement of the legal system and the administration of justice. Therefore, the Committee finds the inquiring judge may write the letter of commendation.
However, it should be noted that one of the responding members of the Committee felt it was inappropriate for the inquiring judge to write this letter. The Committee stated:
"Notwithstanding the good works of the agencies described , I would discourage the judge from publicly commending these groups. Such letter would appear to me directly violative of Canon 2(B). Perhaps a private letter from the judge would suffice if conditioned upon it not being used for commercial or fund raising purposes. "
Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 2 and 2(B).
Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 93-1,
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, 698 So.2d 834 (Fla. 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 Lisa D. Kahn, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 2825 Harry T and Harriette V. Moore Justice Center, 2825 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera, Florida, 32940-8006.
Participating Members: Judges Cardonne, L. Kahn, Smith, Tolton, Attorney Blanton
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 inquiring judge deleted from this copy)