FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Opinion Number: 99-22
Date of Issue: August 25, 1999

WHETHER A JUDGE MAY SEND A LETTER TO LOCAL BUSINESSES ENCOURAGING THEM TO PARTICIPATE IN "CHARACTER COUNTS", AND IDENTIFY HIMSELF AS A MEMBER OF THE JUDICIARY IN THE LETTER?

WHETHER A JUDGE MAY SEND A LETTER TO LOCAL BUSINESSES ENCOURAGING THEM TO PARTICIPATE IN "CHARACTER COUNTS", ON OFFICIAL LETTERHEAD?

ISSUE

Whether a judge may send a letter to local businesses encouraging them to participate in "Character Counts", and identify himself as a member of the judiciary in the letter?
ANSWER: No.

Whether a judge may send a letter to local businesses encouraging them to participate in "Character Counts", on official letterhead?
ANSWER: No.

FACTS

The inquiring judge is a member of "Character Counts", a non-profit United Way member organization. The organization's goal is to teach character to both children and adults. The group plans to reach the children through the schools, and the adults through business employees.

The inquiring judge would like to send a letter to local businesses, explaining the goal of the group's character awareness and ethics education program. The letter states that businesses in the area would benefit from learning the "Nine Pillars of Character" (Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Caring, Respect, Fairness, Citizenship, Commitment, Courage and Faith). The letter states that the organization has assembled a group of business executives and community leaders, who will come to the business at no cost and present the program.

The inquiring judge asks whether he may send this letter and identify himself as a member of the judiciary. He also asks whether the letter may be sent on official letterhead.

DISCUSSION

The Committee has previously found that a judge may be a member of a "Character Counts" organization, as a judge may serve as an officer, director, trustee or non-legal advisor of an educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, sororal or civic organization not conducted for profit. Canon 5C(3). See Opinions 96-4 and 98-2. In Opinion 96-4, the Committee found that the judge, who served on the executive board, could have his name and office as judge appear on the organizations' letterhead. The Committee noted that the Commentary to Canon 5 states:

"[u]se of an organization letterhead for fundraising or membership solicitation does not violate Section 5C(3)(b) provided that the letterhead lists only the judge's name and office or other position in the organization and, if comparable designations are listed for other persons, the judge's judicial designation."

However, when a judge is sending a letter on his own promoting an organization, the judge's official designation should be deleted. In Opinion 93-22, the inquiring judge asked whether he could organize and participate in a group project called "Help Stamp Out Hate." The project was established by various religious organizations, and was designed to promote positive intergroup relations and greater intergroup understanding. The judge proposed to invite participation in the group by forwarding a letter to a cross section of individuals such as priests, ministers and rabbis, as well as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic selection of lay persons. The Committee agreed the judge could participate in the group, but they were concerned that the proposed letter violated Canon 2B in that the judge would be lending the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of others. Several members believed any invitation letter must delete any reference to the judicial office and should be typed only on the judge's personal stationery. Therefore, the Committee finds that the inquiring judge should not identify himself as a judge when sending out the present proposed letter.

The inquiring judge should not send out the proposed letter on official letterhead, as a judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others. Canon 2B. The Committee found in Opinion 96-2 that a judge could be involved in the formation of an organization dedicated to providing confidential assistance to attorneys with problems unrelated to Bar discipline matters. However, the Committee found that, "The Code's prohibitions on the use of the prestige of the judicial office forbid you from using your letterhead in connection with the organization." See also the Commentary to Canon 2B, which states that judicial letterhead must not be used for conducting a judge's personal business.

One Committee member stated that the inquiring judge's letter "could be construed as having a coercive affect on those receiving his correspondence to participate in the program. The recipient could feel that he or she is being 'persuaded' to have his or her employees attend the lectures, which could be construed as a monetary contribution, i.e. lost time on the job for which the employer must pay the employee."1

REFERENCES

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2B and Commentary, and Canon 5C(3) and Commentary.

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 93-22, 96-2, 96-4 and 98-2.

_____________

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 Dell, C. Kahn, L. Kahn, Kotey, Rodriquez, Smith, Swartz and Attorney Blanton.

Copies furnished to:
Justice Peggy A. 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 DRAFT LETTER

Mr. Business Owner
Your Business
City, Florida

Dear Mr. Owner:

One of the greatest challenges to business is increasing productivity. Concurrently, today we face the task of restoring our national character. As we approach the third millennium how do we communicate and accomplish these goals?

Responsible, happy people make the workplace fun and productive. People develop and flourish when they think well of themselves and the people around them.

Each year businesses across the United States lose billions of dollars due to employee fraud and dishonesty. It is no coincidence that over the past fifty years, this nation has suffered a serious character vacuum.

Judges ________ join me in recommending a program which has been proven successful. "Character Counts!" is a character awareness and ethics education program that is sweeping the nation. It is endorsed by U.S. Congressmen from both parties, and here in City, by the City Council, _______ County School Board, _____________ Association and the City Chamber of Commerce. Character Counts! Is a voluntary community movement that includes businesses, civic groups, sports teams, schools, religions, families and individuals.

We believe businesses in our area need to learn the "Nine Pillars of Character"(Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Caring, Respect, Fairness, Citizenship, Commitment, Courage and Faith). We have assembled a group of business executives and community leaders who will come to your business at no cost. I believe that if we implement the program in our businesses, employee crime will go down measurably. Through your employees, we hope to reach children and their families. The entire community will benefit. Moreover, our judicial system will be improved through a reduction in civil law suits and criminal behavior.

Won't you call xxx-xxxx, to set up a time for one of our many executive volunteers to attend your next meeting? I promise you that it will be motivating, exciting and very educational for all involved. It is time for us all to work toward re-establishing the values that made this the greatest country on the face of the earth, values that for some sad and foolish reason we have abandoned.

Thank you.

___________________________________,
Circuit Judge