FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Opinion Number: 99-18
Date of Issue: June 7, 1999

WHETHER A GROUP OF FAMILY DIVISION JUDGES MAY PRESENT ANNUAL PROFESSIONALISM AWARDS TO SELECTED ATTORNEYS WHOM THE JUDGES BELIEVE ARE DESERVING OF A PROFESSIONALISM AWARD?

ISSUE

Whether a group of family division judges may present annual professionalism awards to selected attorneys whom the judges believe deserving of a professionalism award?
ANSWER: YES.

FACTS

The inquiring judge is a family division judge. The judges in the division want to create a "Professionalism" Award to be given annually to four family practitioners that best exemplify the ethics, civility, and integrity the Florida Supreme Court is trying to instill in all lawyers. The judges would vote on the awards, with the four attorneys receiving the most votes receiving the awards. The attorneys chosen would not know which of the judges voted for them. The inquiring judge asks whether the proposed award would violate any ethical canons.

DISCUSSION

Seven (7) members of the Committee believe that this conduct is permissible and three (3) members believe it is not.

Those Committee members who support this conduct agreed that Canon 4 allows a judge to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. The Commentary to Canon 4A states that "a judge is encouraged to participate in activities designed to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice." However, a judge must take care that the judge not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others, nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. Canon 2B.

In Opinion 91-18 an apparent majority of the Committee found that a judge could nominate an attorney for the Selig Golden Award, sponsored by the Criminal Division of the Florida Bar.1 Five committee members found the judge could nominate the attorney for the award, pursuant to Canon 4. Four committee members found "this activity is proscribed in that it could be perceived as favoring one attorney over others and you would be lending the prestige of your office to advance the interests of another, violative of Canons 2(A) and (B)."

The Committee has found that a judge could endorse or nominate a lawyer for the position of delegate to the American Bar Association. See Opinion 79-6. The Committee has also found it proper for a judge to rate attorneys for legal directories. See Opinion 73-15. Judges may write letters to a Judicial Nominating Commission about a lawyer whose application for judicial office is pending before that Commission. See Opinions 95-24, 88-1 and 86-2.

One of the dissenting members of the Committee stated as follows:

"Although a worthy goal, I would find it violates Canon 2(A) and (B) as activities proscribed in that it could be perceived as favoring one attorney over another and lend the prestige of office to advance the interests of another.

I believe this scenario can be distinguished in that in Opinion 91-18 the judges can nominate but the Criminal Division of The Florida Bar makes the decision and gives the awards. Here, the judges would nominate and decide and award. Again, in Opinion 79-6 the judges are only allowed to 'endorse a nominee' not appoint.

As to Opinion 73-15 and judges rating attorneys for legal directories, the judges usually do so anonymously and only provide input, with the directories making independent decisions as to ratings actually bestowed.

Again in Opinions 95-24, 88-1, and 86-2, judges are again only giving information not deciding or nominating.

I believe this would go too far, (possibly encouraging pandering or manipulating of the judiciary) by allowing judges to nominate, decide and present professional awards. If this is a needed award, let the Bar Association professionalism committees at the state or local level make the decisions and bestow the awards."

Another dissenting member of the Committee stated, " I'm .... adamantly opposed to this plan. ...What is going to be the impression to the Lawyers who do not receive the award? What about opposing a lawyer who has received it? I suggest that we leave these functions to The Florida Bar or voluntary bars."

One of the Committee members stated that "although a majority [of the committee] opinion find the proposed action to be unobjectionable, the problem could be completely resolved were the family court judges to delegate the selection of the professionalism award to a panel of practitioners. The judges could then actually be involved in the recognition, but would not have any part in the selection process."

In conclusion, in a seven (7) to three (3) vote, the Committee finds that a group of family division judges may bestow professionalism awards on attorneys, as such awards can promote the integrity of the judicial system. Professionalism should be a goal of every practicing attorney, and the judiciary should encourage all attorneys to work towards that goal.

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct: Canons 2A, 2B, 4, 4A, and Commentary to 4A.

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 95-24, 91-18, 88-1, 86-2, 79-6 and 73-15.

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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 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, Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Justice Center, 2825 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera, Florida, 32940-8006.


Participating Members: Judges Cardonne, Dell, C. Kahn, L. Kahn, Patterson, Rodriquez, Rushing, Silverman, Smith and Swartz .

Copies furnished to:
Justice Peggy Quince
All Committee Members
All Members of the J.Q.C Office of the State Courts Administrator (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy)

1 The vote was five to four, yet the Opinion states that, "The committee is split whether you can nominate an attorney for a par (sic) sponsored award and there is no majority for either position."