Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Committed Relationship" Creates Appearance Of Impropriety

The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Commission recently opined on the following issues:

1. Whether an impropriety or appearance of impropriety would exist if a judge were to serve as the chief judge in a judicial circuit while being in a committed relationship with one of the general magistrates serving in that circuit when the judge serving as the chief judge had no role or influence in the hiring of said general magistrate.


2. If the answer to question number one is "yes," whether the impropriety or appearance of impropriety continue to exist if the judge's first act upon becoming chief judge in the circuit was to execute an administrative order formally transitioning all supervisory authority over all of the general magistrates to another circuit court judge.


The committee's reasoning:

We conclude that the judge's contemplated conduct as described in issues one and two above violates Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 2.  Notwithstanding the judge's good-faith intention to properly perform chief judge duties, there is a significant likelihood that reasonable persons would perceive that the performance of the chief judge administrative duties would be influenced by a close personal relationship with a general magistrate -- particularly with regard to decisions concerning the general magistrate's continued employment and compensation. 

We further conclude that the appearance of impropriety would not be dissipated by the entry of an administrative order by the chief judge delegating supervisory responsibilities over the general magistrate to another judge.  Pursuant to Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.215(b), the chief judge is responsible to the chief justice of the supreme court for the proper exercise of the administrative duties set forth in Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.215.  That responsibility would remain even if the chief judge assigned a portion of those duties to another judge.  Furthermore, the chief  judge would have the power to rescind or modify the administrative order at any time.

We find support for our decision from Fla. JEAC Op. 02-02.  There, our committee determined that it would be a violation of Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 2 for the spouse of the administrative judge of the family division to be employed by the court administrator's office as a case manager in the family law division.  We found that the pivotal issue was the appearance of impropriety that could occur as the result of the fact that the spouse's employment as case manager was directly involved and related to the family law division and its operation.  We noted that although the inquiring judge indicated that the judge would have  no supervisory control or decision-making authority over the spouse's employment, promotion or termination, it was unclear to the committee how an administrative judge of the family law division would have no input regarding the duties and performance of a family law division case manager.

The inquiring judge suggests a willingness, upon election to the chief judge position, to immediately request the Supreme Court to reassign the oversight duties associated with general magistrates to another judge.  We cannot speculate as to whether the Supreme Court would grant such a request and, accordingly, decline to address this issue.

The opinion is No. 2010-08 and is linked here.  (Mike Frisch)


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