Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome To The Tea Party

A candidate for judicial office may address two Tea Party Patriots groups in some circumstances, according to a recent opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee:

...the Committee first notes that the website materials provided by the candidate suggest that the local Patriots group is an organization similar in mission and vision to the Tea Party Patriots organization, and so the Committee reaches the same conclusion discussed herein as to both organizations.

The Tea Party Patriots’ national website, provided by the candidate, states that its mission is to “attract, educate, organize and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”  The website further states that its philosophy is to “recognize and support the strength of grassroots organization powered by activism and civic responsibility at a local level.” 

The website material provided regarding the local Patriots group states that it is comprised of local citizens sharing a common passion for liberty and limited government, which believes that the Constitution of the United States maintains the powers of government are only those granted within the Constitution.  Its mission includes, among other activities, “[t]o monitor, report and present evidence of encroachment upon Constitutional Liberty.”  The organization’s pledge is “I will do all within my power to preserve, protect and hold government accountable to the United States Constitution.  I will educate myself on the United States Constitution, whereas I may be able to defend the same against all usurpation’s [sic].” 

Based on the materials submitted by the candidate regarding these organizations, it appears to the Committee that these Patriots gatherings either are associated with, or may be perceived as being associated with, what has become known as the Tea Party movement.  There appear to be a number of political organizations using the name Tea Party, as well as a political party registered with the Florida Department of State as the Tea Party.  Based on the well-publicized political activism and ongoing participation in current political electoral processes of the Tea Party on both a national and local level -- either as a grass roots movement or as a registered political party -- the Committee believes that the candidate should treat the gatherings of both of these Patriots groups as political party functions. 

In describing the limited circumstances under which a judge may attend a political party function, Canon 7(3)(C) provides that “[a] judicial candidate attending a political party function must avoid conduct that suggests or appears to suggest support of or opposition to a political party, a political issue, or another candidate,” thereby making clear that such conduct is inappropriate political activity prohibited by the Code.  Based on the activities of the various Tea Party organizations, the Committee believes that a judicial candidate’s appearance at one of these Patriot gatherings -- other than as prescribed by Canon 7(C)(3) -- would at a minimum give the appearance of inappropriate political activity violative of Canon 7.  Accordingly, the Committee believes that the candidate may speak at one of these functions only under the conditions described in Canon 7(3)(C), that is, the event is not a fundraiser, the other candidates for the position have been invited, and the candidate limits the presentation to the topics permitted by Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7(3)(C).

The Committee further opines that, absent the restrictions set forth in Canon 7(3)(C), the candidate’s attendance and speaking at the events may call into question the candidate’s impartiality and independence, in violation of Canon 7(A)(3)(b), or may be perceived as an attempt to directly or indirectly solicit the endorsement of a major political party, in violation of Canon 7 and Florida Statutes 105.071(1).  Fla. JEAC Op. 04-09 (Election).

The Committee is also of the opinion that the factual scenario presented here is different than that presented by prior inquiries regarding the propriety of attending meetings of organizations which merely have political interests such as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the NRA.  The Committee believes these groups are distinguishable from political parties or other political organizations whose principal purpose is to further the election or appointment of candidates to political office.  Although it is not clear whether the Committee’s Opinion regarding “United We Stand” is factually distinguishable, the Committee notes that its members at the time were divided as to the result reached in that Opinion.

Finally, the Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application for the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate.  The Committee does not render legal opinions regarding the constitutionality or enforceability of various provisions of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.  See Fla. JEAC Op. 02-16.

(Mike Frisch)


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