FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2021-12
Date of Issue: August 10, 2021

ISSUE

May a judge or court administrator accept an unsolicited one-time  gift from a bar association to use as incentive gifts in the court’s Problem-Solving Courts.

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

A local bar association approached the inquiring judge and asked whether it could honor the judges of the court’s “Problem Solving Courts.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bar association did not hold its annual reception honoring the local judiciary. Instead, the bar association asked the inquiring judge whether it could use the money allocated to that event and make a one-time cash donation to the court to fund “incentive gifts” for participants in the circuit’s Problem-Solving Courts.

The inquiring judge asks whether the judge, or the court, can accept the donation and use the funds to purchase gift cards that will be used as incentive gifts in the Problem-Solving Courts. Alternatively, the inquiring judge asks whether the court administrator can accept the funds on behalf of the court.

The inquiring judge states that the inquiring judge did not request the donation.

 

DISCUSSION

As the inquiring judge notes, the committee already addressed a very similar issue. In JEAC Op. 2007-05, the committee concluded that “[t]he acceptance of gifts, for any purpose, from lawyers or law firms who are likely to come before the judge may exploit the judge’s judicial position, provide grounds to question the judge’s impartiality, convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge and create a potential for disqualification.” In support of our conclusion, we cite Canons 2A, 2B, 3E, 5A(1), 5D(1), and 5D(5).

The inquiring judge notes two possible distinctions between the present situation and that discussed in Fla. JEAC Op. 2007-05. First, the inquiring judge in this case is not soliciting the gift.  Second, the source of the gift. Unlike in Fla. JEAC Op. 2007-05, the gift at issue here is not given directly by a lawyer or law firm.

These distinctions led other ethics organizations to approve gifts to specialty courts in similar situations.

First, the American Bar Association issued ABA Formal Op. 08-452. In that opinion, the ABA committee explained that a judge can participate in fundraising to benefit a court, including a specialty court. But, the committee explained, “A judge who participates in fundraising activities on behalf of a court, including a ‘therapeutic’ or ‘problem-solving’ court, must limit the participation to activities permitted by Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 3.7(A). The judge also must ensure that her conduct does not violate Judicial Code Rules 3.1, 1.2, or 1.3.”

Next, in Advisory Opinion JE12-009, the State of Nevada Standing Committee on Judicial Ethics concluded a judge and judicial staff may not solicit cash or other gifts to be used as incentives in a drug court program. But that committee concluded a judge could accept unsolicited donations.

More recently, the Arizona Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued Opinion 19-01. In that opinion, the committee concluded that a court could, “with qualifications,” accept unsolicited donations to purchase and distribute incentives such as gift cards to participants in problem-solving courts. The Arizona committee concluded the court could do so (i) if the gift is unsolicited; (ii) if the gift does not involve donations for the personal use or benefit of a judge or judicial employee; (iii) if the gift is not used for funding a statutory mandate; and (iv) if the gift will not mandate frequent disqualification.

Informed by our earlier decision, and the recent decisions from the other jurisdictions, we conclude that the court administrator for the circuit can accept the one-time donation for the purpose of distributing gift-cards as incentives in the Problem-Solving Court. In reaching this conclusion, we do not recede from our opinion in Fla. JEAC Op. 2007-05. The inquiring judge, and the judges of the court, should be mindful of that opinion and the Code of Judicial Conduct when distributing the gift cards.

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code of Judicial Conduct, Canons 2A, 2B, 3E, 5A(1), 5D(1), and 5D(5)
Fla. JEAC Op. 2007-05
Arizona Supreme Court JEAC Op. 19-01
Nevada Comm. on Jud. Ethics JE12-009
Am. Bar Ass’n. Formal Op. 08-452

_____________


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 of the committee.   See Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So. 2d 834 (Fla. 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. See id.

The Committee expresses no view on whether any proposed conduct of an inquiring judge is consistent with substantive law which governs any proceeding over which the inquiring judge may preside. The Committee only has authority to interpret the Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore its opinions deal only with whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

for futher information, contact Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Chair of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 301 S. Monroe Street, Room 265-B, Tallahassee, FL 32301 or JEAC@flcourts.org.

Participating Members:
Judge Michael Andrews, Judge Roberto Arias, Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Judge W. Joel Boles, Judge Miguel de la O, Judge James A. Edwards, Judge David Green, Mark Herron, Esquire, Judge Jeffrey T. Kuntz, Judge Matthew C. Lucas, Judge Michael Raiden, and Charles Reynolds, Esquire.

All Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opinions, subject matter indices, and a search engine are available on the Sixth Circuit’s website at www.jud6.org under Opinions. Committee opinions and related finding tools are also accessible on the Florida Supreme Court’s website at www.floridasupremecourt.org as a secondary posting under Court Opinions.


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, Justice Liaison
John A Tomasino, Supreme Court Clerk
All Committee Members
Alexander J. Williams, General Counsel of the J.Q.C.
Melissa Hamilton, Staff Counsel