FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Opinion Number: 2000-04
Date of Issue: February 11, 2000
Whether a Civil Traffic Infraction Hearing Officer's attendance at the local police department's Citizens Police Academy violates the Code of Judicial Conduct?
ANSWER: Yes, by raising an appearance of impropriety.
Florida Rule of Traffic Court 6.630(i) states that all traffic hearing officers shall be subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct. See also Application of the Code of Judicial Conduct, subsection A.
Canon 5A states that "[a] judge shall conduct all of the judge's extra- judicial activities so that they do not: (1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge; (2) demean the judicial office; or (3) interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties." See also Canon 4A (relating to quasi-judicial activities).
In Opinion 91-31, this Committee found that a criminal court judge may ride as an observer with law enforcement on an infrequent basis to enhance judicial performance, as long as it was done on a limited basis and the judge disqualified himself/herself from any criminal case that originated in his/her presence. One of the members of the majority opinion felt that a single ride was sufficient and there be no publicity surrounding the occasion. Id. However, two committee members were of the opinion the proposed activity violated the Canons and should be prohibited because this pursuit may cast doubt on the judge's impartiality, interfere with his/her judicial duties and may be perceived as detracting from the dignity of his/her office, violative of Canons 5A and 4A. Id.
In addition, this Committee, in Opinion 98-5, found that a judge's mere presence at an educational program designed for and attended by criminal defense attorneys should be permitted, since it may improve the administration of justice by providing the judge with current important topics in the area of criminal law. In Opinion 92-34, all Committee members agreed that a judge may attend those ceremonies during Law Enforcement Recognition Week to honor officers killed in the line of duty. This Committee concluded that there was not an appearance of impropriety because it did not believe that reasonable people would conclude that the judge's appearance at those ceremonies would significantly undermine public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Id; see also Opinion 95-40 (permissible to attend a luncheon sponsored by the Domestic Violence Abuse Council, Inc., at which Denise Brown will speak about domestic violence); Opinion 95-41 (permissible to attend a Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD) candlelight vigil).
However, a judge must avoid all appearances of impropriety. Canon 2A. "The test for appearance of impropriety is whether the conduct would create in reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances that a reasonable inquiry would disclose, a perception that the judge's ability to carry out judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality, and competence is impaired." Commentary to Canon 2A.
This Committee finds that the previously-listed opinions, which found no appearances of impropriety, were based on infrequent and limited situations, such as a one-time "ride- along" or attendance at one luncheon, ceremony or vigil. In the instant inquiry, the hearing officer would be attending courses at the local police department two times a week for a six-week period. This prolonged, familiar contact with the local police department may create a reasonable perception that casts doubt on the hearing officer's impartiality, interfere with his/her duties, and detract from the dignity of his/her office. Moreover, one of the purposes of the Citizens Police Academy is to form a partnership with law enforcement in order to reduce crime and make the neighborhoods safer places. In addition, students of this Academy are expected to share the view of the local police department with other citizens to improve the efficiency of law enforcement and order maintenance in the neighborhoods through shared responsibilities and resources.
In Opinion 98-5, this Committee distinguished the course in the New York Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion: 94-31 (March 10, 1994) from attendance at a criminal law seminar by stating that the purpose of the New York program was to "maximize enforcement (enhance the conviction rate of people accused of alcohol and drug-related vehicle and traffic crimes)", whereas the only consideration in Opinion 98-5 was an educational program dealing with current topics in criminal law. This Committee agrees with the New York Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee that although it may be a laudable, overall societal goal to reduce crime, it is not one which the judiciary shares as part of its constitutional mandate. See New York Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion: 94-31 (March 10, 1994). Judges should be encouraged to attend seminars, but only ones whose agendas are not born of strictly partisan concerns. See id.
Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 2A and Commentary, 5A, and 4A.
Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions: 91-31, 92-34, 95- 40, 95-41, and 98-5.
Florida Rule of Traffic Court 6.630(i).
New York Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion: 94-31 (March 10, 1994).
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 C. McFerrin Smith, III, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, DeLand Jail Building, 130 West New York Avenue, DeLand, Florida, 32720.
Participating Members: Judges Cardonne, L. Kahn, Levy, Rodriguez, Silverman, Smith, and Thompson.Copies furnished to: