Friday, January 28, 2011
From the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee:
May a judge create and privately maintain a website designed primarily to focus high school students on college or trade school preparation?
The inquiring judge intends to launch and maintain a website, primarily intended to focus high school students on college or trade school preparation. The home-page would have several potential sources of scholarship information which was provided by the local school system. The site would also have a page dedicated to linking those who suffer from domestic violence with assistance. This domestic violence page would suggest counseling and treatment for those who may need treatment at any of the state certified Batterer’s Intervention Programs. The site would have links on the main page to the Army, Navy, and Air Force recruiting offices. Finally the website would have a biographic page and briefly mention a domestic violence case that the inquiring judge was recused from because the violence occurred in front of the judge.
Included in the judge’s Inquiry is the request that we review the information on this site and let the judge know if anything needs to be changed. As in the case of requests to vet campaign literature, we decline to do so. This Committee has previously concluded that its charge does not (and logistically cannot) include the obligation to screen, upon request, any and all contemplated public statements of Florida's judges. Therefore, our advice to the inquiring judge will address only the concepts of the contemplated conduct.
As to the request to review the web page:
It is not practicable to list all the provisions of the Code that could apply to a judge’s web site. So, before publishing material on a web site, the judge should carefully examine all provisions of the Code that relate to the site and its topics, to insure that the judge is not doing on the web something the judge could not ethically do in person.
As stated in the Commentary to Canon 2A:
A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on the judge’s conduct…that are indispensible to the main-tenance of the integrity, im-partiality, and independence of the judiciary.
A minority of the committee believes that the committee should not have an absolute rule declining to review judges’ inquiries on website content. The minority believes that the committee should consider such inquiries on a case-by-case basis depending upon whether the inquiring judge has provided enough information to allow the committee to render an opinion in an efficient manner without further investigation.
The minority believes that, here, the inquiring judge has provided enough information to allow the committee to render an opinion regarding his intent to include links on his website for: (1) assistance for domestic violence victims and batterers, and (2) description of a domestic violence case from which the inquiring judge was recused.
As for the link for assistance for domestic violence victims and batterers, the minority is circumspect of the inquiring judge’s motive for including such a link because the inquiring judge’s stated intent for the website is “to focus high school students on college or trade preparation.” Nevertheless, such a link may be acceptable given the Florida Supreme Court’s adoption of certain recommendations for a model family court in In re: Report of the Family Court Steering Committee, 794 So. 2d 518 (Fla. 2001). Domestic violence cases were expressly included in a model family court. Id. at 525. Among the recommendations which the Court adopted: “Trial courts must . . . establish linkages with community resources.” Id. at 522. Also, a model family court should include “a front-end intake process to provide information [and] make referrals to legal and social services.” Id. at 529. Domestic violence programs were identified as one of the type of social services for which the court should provide information and/or make referrals. Id. at 546. Thus, merely providing a link for assistance for domestic violence victims and batterers would not appear to cast doubt on a judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge in domestic violence cases.
The opinion is linked here. (Mike Frisch)