Thursday, July 6, 2017
What does a judge do when $10,000 in cash arrives from an unknown source?
Ask the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee
Opinion Number: 2017-11
Date of Issue: June 24, 2017
Whether the Code of Judicial Conduct provides guidance for how a judge should dispose of an anonymous cash gift.
The inquiring judge received an anonymous birthday card at home which contained $10,000 in cash. The judge immediately turned the money over to the Sheriff’s Office. After conducting an investigation the Sheriff’s Office determined that the money was almost certainly sent by a person who, at the time the judge received the money, had a case pending before the inquiring judge. The presiding judge no longer serves in the same division. The Sheriff’s Office has determined that the evidence is lacking to proceed with criminal charges against the litigant. The money remains in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office. The inquiring judge seeks guidance as to what the Canons require the judge to do with the money.
The Code of Judicial Conduct establishes standards for the ethical conduct of judges. “The Code is designed to provide guidance to judges and candidates for judicial office and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies.” Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Preamble. Canon 5D(5) prohibits a judge from accepting “a gift, bequest, favor or loan from anyone” with certain exceptions that are not applicable under the facts presented here. The commentary to Canon 5D(5)(d) explains, in pertinent part:
A gift to a judge ... that is excessive in value raises questions about the judge’s impartiality and the integrity of the judicial office ...
Canon 6 requires a judge to report gifts to the Judicial Qualifications Commissions. Neither Canon 6, nor its attendant commentary address, the reporting requirement if the gift is ultimately returned or disposed of in some other manner.
The excessive amount of the anonymous gift presented to the inquiring judge alone, would, if accepted, call into question the ethics of the judge and the integrity of the judicial proceedings. That the gift was from a then litigant whose case was pending before the judge suggests an attempt at bribery.
The inquiring judge asks this committee, “What should I do with the money?” We first note that any effort by the inquiring judge to direct the method and manner in which the gift is disposed of is discouraged. Any such efforts by the inquiring judge calls into question the integrity of the prior judicial proceedings. Additionally, if the inquiring judge were to direct that the money be given to a particular charitable organization or other charitable groups such a decision could be perceived as the judge using the judicial office to solicit funds for a particular group in violation of Canon 5C(3)(b)(iii).
The Committee offers the following suggestions as ways the inquiring judge could avoid the appearance of impropriety during any disposition of the gift in question:
- Disclaim any possessory interest in the funds. This would leave the money in the possession of the Sheriff’s Office and allow them to decide what to do with the funds.
- Request that the Sheriff’s Office turn the money over to the Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Unclaimed Property. See § 717 et seq., Fla. Stat. (2016).
- Ask the Sheriff’s Office to return the money to the litigant it has identified as the sender.
Glad I asked. (Mike Frisch)