Category Archives: Judicial ethics

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge’s Facebook “friendship” with Florida lawyer and former judge leads to motion to disqualify and appeal

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent denial of a Motion to Disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook as well as the pending appeal.  The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: _______________, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Third District Court of Appeal) and the Motion for Writ of Prohibition is here:  http://www.almcms.com/contrib/content/uploads/sites/292/2017/07/FILED-HLG-Petition-for-Writ-of-Prohibition-3D17-1421-1.pdf 

According to the Petition, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is a “friend” of attorney Israel Reyes on Facebook.  Reyes is also a former Miami-Dade judge who served with Judge Butchko and now has a private law firm in Coral Gables.  Reyes represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein apparently accused the employee of witness tampering.  Herssein told the court that he planned to add the employee as a defendant and Reyes entered an appearance on behalf of the employee/non-party.

The Motion to Disqualify filed by the Herssein law firm on behalf of USAA alleged that the Facebook friendship between the judge and Reyes would cause Reyes to be able to influence the judge, and that she could not be impartial.  The judge denied the motion, stating that it was legally insufficient.  The law firm then filed the Petition for Writ of Prohibition with the Third District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Advisory Committee (JEAC) issued an opinion on this issue in 2009.  The JEAC opinion states that judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.  The advisory opinion excludes campaign sites created by a committee.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2009-20 (11/17/09) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2009/2009-20.htmlt  The opinion states:

“The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer “friends” are in a special position to influence the judge.  This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge.  The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.  The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The JEAC applied the same analysis in a 2012 opinion related to professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, and stated that there is no “meaningful distinction” between Facebook, and LinkedIn.  The opinion is JEAC Op. No. 2012-12 (5/9/12) and is here:  http://www.jud6.org/legalcommunity/legalpractice/opinions/jeacopinions/2012/2012-12.html.  The opinions states:

The Committee continues to believe that the process of selecting persons to be connections on LinkedIn, and the communication by the judge of the list of the judge’s connections to others who the judge has approved, violates Canon 2B.  The Committee does not believe that there is meaningful distinction in this regard between Facebook, and LinkedIn, a site used for professional networking, because the selection and communication process is the same on both sites.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the 2009 opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”

USAA argued that the 2012 Fourth DCA decision should not apply since it involved a criminal defendant who might have a reasonable fear of prejudice; however, the law firm is more sophisticated and should not have such a fear only because two judges who both previously sat as judges in Miami-Dade County are “friends” on Facebook.

Other states have also provided guidance on judicial social media use and Florida’s opinion is one of the most restrictive.  California, Kentucky and New York have opined that judges may accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.  California permits judges to be friends with lawyers on Facebook if those pages are used only for professional activities, such as communications with members of a law school alumni group and other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.

Bottom line:  As this case illustrates, judges (and lawyers who may appear before them) would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection and disclose it to all parties and provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it would potentially be prejudiced.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Florida judge suspended for six months for judicial campaign violations and Bar Rule violations while he was a practicing lawyer

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Florida Supreme Court reprimanding and suspending a judge for six (6) months for violating the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canons related to judicial candidates and the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar while he was a practicing lawyer for, inter alia, making improper and false statements as a candidate, and failing to withdraw from a lawsuit where he had a conflict of interest.  The case is Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 13-25 Re: Andrew J. Decker, III, No. SC14-383 (March 2, 2017) and the Court’s opinion is here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2014/383/2014-383_disposition_138059.pdf

The investigation into the alleged misconduct began before the judge was elected as a Third Judicial Circuit judge in 2012.  The judge was alleged to have had a conflict of interest while he was representing clients as a lawyer and of, among other things, falsely stating that he had never been accused of conflict of interest and stating that he was “pro-life” and Republican at campaign events before his election in 2012.  The judge maintained that his comments regarding his party and his views regarding abortion were “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.

The judge was also named in an inquiry by a Florida House committee regarding the time it takes to investigate and resolve allegations against judges.  Former Duval Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey was also named; however, he resigned the day before the committee began the inquiry.

In March 2015, after an investigation, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) recommended a 90-day suspension without pay; however, the opinion rejected that recommendation and imposed a six (6) month suspension, reprimand, and required payment of the JQC’s costs.

According to the opinion:  “All the violations established in this case demonstrate a pattern of poor judgment, and lack of concern for jointly represented clients and for other counsel and their clients.”  “Judge Decker’s misconduct unquestionably warrants the imposition of a serious sanction.”  The opinion also indicated that the judge’s misconduct did not result in any harm to his clients or anyone else and: “Although the series of acts by Judge Decker involving misconduct requires the imposition of a serious sanction, we have concluded it does not merit removal from office.”

Bottom line:  This case is interesting since all judicial candidates and judges are subject to investigation by the JQC  for alleged violations of the Judicial Canons for alleged misconduct while they are candidates or while they are on the bench.  They also can (and have been) prosecuted by The Florida Bar for misconduct before they are sworn in as a judge.  In this case, the Court suspended the judge for conduct both as a practicing lawyer and as a judicial candidate; however, The Florida Bar will have jurisdiction to prosecute the judge for Florida Bar Rule violations after he is no longer a judge.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge charged with misconduct for allegedly accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from firm with case pending before him

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the February 1, 2016 Notice of Formal Charges filed by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) against Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge John Lakin for allegedly requesting and accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from a law firm which had a case pending before him.  The JQC charges are here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/182/2016-182_notice_77834.pdf

According to the JQC Notice of Formal Charges and charges, in June 2015, the judge was presiding over the personal injury case of Wittke v. Walmart June, wherein the plaintiff accused Walmart of negligence, which caused her to fall and injure herself.  After a trial, Walmart was found by the jury not to be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.  The day after the verdict was rendered, the judge asked his judicial assistant to contact the law firm which defended the plaintiff to request tickets for that night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.

The judge received five tickets valued at about $100 each, and he indicated that he only used two of the tickets.  The judge was from the Boston area.  According to the JQC Notice:  “The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base”.

According to the JQC Notice, the plaintiff’s law firm filed a motion 6 days later to set aside the verdict and for a new trial.  The motion was heard on August 21, 2015; however, the judge did not rule at that time.  On August 25, 2015, the judge requested and received five more tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from the law firm and, on August 26, 2015, the judge issued an order setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.  The Order stated that  “(n)o reasonable jury could have returned a verdict finding that the Defendant was not at least partially liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial.”   The Notice further states:  “(y)our extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart. You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”

According to the JQC Notice, the Chief Circuit Judge for the 12th Judicial District told the judge his conduct was inappropriate and told him to report it to the JQC.  The judge then disclosed that he had received tickets from the firm both to the JQC and to Walmart attorneys; however, according to the Notice, “(y)our subsequent disclosure to the parties on October 9, 2015, stated only that, ‘I previously received Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from the…law firm.’  Your disclosure did not include the dates that you accepted the tickets, nor did you even explain that you had accepted the tickets while the Wittke matter was pending.”  The JQC Notice also states that the judge received baseball tickets from two other law firms which have appeared before him.

The JQC rules prohibit judges from conducting activities outside of the courtroom which cast a reasonable doubt on his or her ability to be impartial, undermine the judge’s independence, or demean the judicial office and from “accepting gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge.”

The JQC rules provide that the judge may file an answer to the Notice and charges within 20 days. The JQC will hold hearings and make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which will issue a formal order/opinion and impose discipline if the judge is found guilty.

Bottom line: This is a somewhat extraordinary and surprising case.  Perhaps the judge was unaware of the rules prohibiting accepting gifts from lawyers, specifically when the case is pending before him; however, under the most unfavorable argument, the judge could be alleged to have accepted the gift and issued favorable ruling as a direct result of the law firm’s gift.  Both lawyers and judges must be very aware of these clear prohibitions and also that the consequences of a violation of the rules, whether intentional or unintentional, will most likely be very severe.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge ethics accepting gifts, Judicial ethics, Judicial ethics accepting gifts from lawyers with pending cases

Florida Supreme Court issues order to show cause and immediately suspends judge who cursed at and fought with public defender

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the October 6, 2015 Florida Supreme Court order which rejected the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) recommendation of a 120 day suspension for a judge who cursed at and fought with a public defender and ordered the judge to “show cause why removal from office is not the appropriate sanction in this case” by October 26, 2015.  The order also immediately suspended the judge without pay pending the disposition of the proceedings.  The JQC disciplinary case is Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Re: John C Murphy, Case No. SC-1582 (Fla. SC).  The Court’s October 6, 2015 order to show cause is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_10-06-2015_Order_to_Show_Cause.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

The judicial disciplinary charges resulted from a June 2, 2014 hearing in which the judge became upset with assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock after the lawyer refused to waive speedy trial for a client.  The judge told the lawyer: “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Stop pissing me off. Just sit down. I’ll take care of this. I don’t need your help. Sit down.”  The lawyer stated, in response: “I’m the public defender. I have a right to be here, and I have a right to stand and represent my clients.”

According to the JQC’s May 19, 2015 Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations, the judge “loudly commanded” the attorney to sit down and told him, “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”  The public defender accepted the judge’s challenge and he and the judge left the bench and met in the hall.  To that point, the exchange was captured on courtroom video and audio recordings; however, the hall confrontation was not recorded on video.

The judge was audio recorded making “an even more profane remark” as he confronted the lawyer.  Sounds of an altercation could be heard, followed by the lawyer asking for the judge to be arrested for grabbing and punching him; however, the report concluded that there was no clear and convincing evidence that the judge struck the lawyer and noted that a woman who took the lawyer’s photo the following day testified that she saw no evidence of injury.  The report also noted that the lawyer had a reputation at the courthouse for being rude and unprofessional and that he was “defiant, defensive, evasive and at times testified inconsistent with what he had earlier reported” at the JQC hearing.  The report concluded that the lawyer was not a credible witness.

The JQC Findings state that the judge was well-liked among other judges and that he was endorsed by lawyers who said he was a good judge and expressed surprise at the situation. The judge also took responsibility for his actions and “expressed profound remorse”; however, the incident created “a remarkable national embarrassment” for Florida’s judiciary and its citizens.  The report recommended a three-month suspension, a $50,000 fine, costs of the proceedings, and a public reprimand.  The JQC Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations are online here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_05-19-2015_Findings_Conclusions_Recommendations.pdf

After the commission filed its Findings, the Supreme Court issued an order to show cause on May 21, 2015 as to why the recommendation should not be granted.  On June 25, 2015, the judge filed a response through counsel stating that he would not contest the recommendations; however, he called the sanctions harsh and possibly unprecedented and pointed out the burden his suspension would place on his colleagues.  The response stated that the judge immediately took responsibility for his actions, apologized for his mistake, and did not publicly respond to the lawyer’s allegedly false claims that he struck the lawyer.  The response referred to letters from lawyers and the public stating that he is “a good man and an excellent judge,” as opposed to the lawyer, who “left a trail of judges offended by his behavior.”

The judge’s response further states: “The sanctions recommended by the JQC indeed are harsh. Judge Murphy accepts them while recognizing how difficult it would be emotionally — being off the bench for four months — and financially. As for public scrutiny and ridicule, he knows it is of his own making, and he is shamed. Judge Murphy will not quarrel with the JQC recommendations.  Dozens of endorsements through this process identify Judge Murphy as a good man and a good and fair jurist. This one moment in time should not be allowed to define his life and career.”  The judge’s response is here:   http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_06-25-2015_Response_Order_Show_Cause.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

The JQC filed a reply on June 30, 2015 which states: “again, as he did at trial, (the judge) expends quite a bit of effort to deflect responsibility for the situation upon attorney Andrew Weinstock, minimizing the impact of his improper language and the aggressive physical confrontation in the hallway outside the courtroom directed at Mr. Weinstock. Compounding his misconduct he proceeded to handle the cases of seven separate clients of Mr. Weinstock after the confrontation in the hallway, including persuading five of them to waive speedy trial, the very act that Mr. Weinstock had steadfastly refused to do. Finally, he makes much of the fact that the Hearing Panel did not find that blows were actually struck, which is irrelevant under these circumstances.”

The JQC reply concludes: “A truly contrite Judge Murphy would avoid heaping blame on others, would accept without reservation the discipline proposed by the hearing panel in this matter, and would be grateful that removal was not recommended”.  “Instead, what we see is a grudging acceptance and a continued, major effort to deflect his own responsibility onto someone else for his egregious wrong.” The JQC reply is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_06-30-2015_JQC_Reply_Response_Show_Cause_Order.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

Bottom line: This incident was, of course, widely publicized in the media and the judge was both criticized and ridiculed (as well as the judiciary as a whole).  The JQC Findings recommended a 4 month suspension; however, the JQC reply was extremely critical of the judge’s response and stated that it was part of “ a continued, major effort to deflect his own responsibility onto someone else for his egregious wrong.”  I suspect that the Supreme Court was not happy with this incident in the first instance and this “deflection of responsibility” may have been a major factor (if not the main factor) in the Court’s order immediately suspending the judge and ordering him to show cause why he should not be removed from judicial office.  Stay tuned…

…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Filed under Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge misconduct cursing and fight with lawyer, Judicial ethics

Texas judge admonished for commenting on pending criminal case on her Facebook page and violating her own order

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished a Texas district court judge for commenting about a controversial trial on her public Facebook page after issuing jury instructions prohibiting same.  The case is In re: Hon. Michelle Slaughter, CJC No. 14-0820-DI & 14-0838-DI  (April 20, 2015).  The link to the opinion is here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2066528-slaughter-admonition-2015.html and here: http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/pdf/actions/FY2015-PUBSANC.pdf

According to the admonition, the judge maintained a public Facebook page which had an image of her in a robe, which she said she set up to fulfill a campaign promise to educate the public about the courts.  The judge presided over a criminal case in which in which a defendant named David Wieseckel was criminally charged with unlawful restraint for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a 6 feet by 8 feet wooden enclosure that was used as the child’s bedroom.

The admonition states:  “On April 26, 2014, Judge Slaughter posted the following comment on her Facebook page: ‘We have a big criminal trial starting Monday! Jury selection Monday and opening statements Tues. morning.’ The following day, in response to the post described above, a person named Jeff Bodie posted the following comment on Judge Slaughter’s Facebook page: ‘One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies is ‘Hang ‘Em High’, jus [sic] sayin [sic] your honor……’”

“In a pre-trial hearing on April 28, 2014, the defendant’s attorney argued a motion in limine to limit the use of the term ‘box’ to describe the wooden enclosure at trial, contending that the term was prejudicial to the defendant and misstated the evidence. Judge Slaughter denied defense counsel’s motion, stating the following: ‘Calling it a wooden enclosure – certainly the press has referred to it as ‘The Boy in the Box’ case, that sort of thing. So I don’t think that there’s going to be prejudice. The jury can make up their own minds as to what they believe that is.’”

“On April 28, 2014, after the jury had been selected, Judge Slaughter provided the jurors with oral instructions regarding their use of social media, including Facebook, and their access to any news stories about the case. The judge expressly admonished the jurors as follows: ‘During the trial of the case, as I mentioned before, you cannot talk to anyone. So make sure that you don’t talk to anyone. Again, this is by any means of communication. So no texting, e-mailing, talking person to person or on the phone or Facebook. Any of that is absolutely forbidden.’”

“In addition the judge provided written instructions to the jury that included the following admonition: ‘Do not make any investigation about the facts of this case. … All evidence must be presented in open court so that each side may question the witnesses and make proper objection. This avoids a trial based upon secret evidence. These rules apply to jurors the same as they apply to the parties and to me (the judge).’”

“On April 29, 2014, after the first day of testimony, Judge Slaughter posted the following comments on her Facebook page: • ‘Opening statements this morning at 9:30 am in the trial called by the press ‘the boy in the box’ case.’” • ‘After we finished Day 1 of the case called the ‘Boy in the Box’ case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6”x8’ ‘box’ inside the courtroom!’ • ‘This is the case currently in the 405th!” [this post included a link to a Reuters article entitled: “Texas father on trial for putting son in a box as punishment.’]”

The judge was later removed from the case after defense counsel filed a motion to recuse her, claiming that she had improperly commented about the trial on her Facebook page and improperly posted the link to the Reuters article.  Following her recusal, the case was transferred to another judge who judge granted a motion for a mistrial.

The judge argued at her discipline hearing that her Facebook posts were to promote “transparency” and to “encourage individuals to come watch the proceedings” and that the posts made it clear that it was the media which referred to the case as the “boy in the box” case. She also said she was “shocked” to see the “Hang ‘Em High” post and removed it from her page months later. She also argued that all of her comments were true and based on publicly available information.

The admonition noted that the judge’s Facebook posts, her recusal, and the subsequent mistrial received widespread negative media attention which criticized her conduct.  The judge had also posted comments on her Facebook page about another criminal trial pending in her court.  The judge removed the Facebook page after the investigation began.

“Despite her contention that the information she provided was public information, Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the Wieseckel case or in other high-profile cases.” “The comments went beyond providing an explanation for the procedures of the court and highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced.”  The admonition requires the judge to obtain four hours of instruction with a mentor in addition to her required judicial education.

According to media reports, the judge stated that she disagreed with the commission’s decision but would appeal.  She also stated: “ None of my statements indicated any probable decision I would make, and none of my statements expressed a bias for or against any particular party. Everything I posted was publicly-available information”.

Bottom line:  This is yet another example of a judge landing in hot water for comments made on social media, this time on Facebook.  Judges (and lawyers) who maintain social media pages and make comments on them must be aware of the consequences of comments which may be inappropriate and which could result in discipline, which occurred in this case.  If the judge appeals, the Texas Supreme Court will issue a final opinion.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Filed under joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge discipline Facebook posts, Judicial discipline social media ethics, Judicial ethics

U.S. Supreme Court upholds Florida’s judicial rule prohibiting direct campaign contribution solicitations by judges and judicial candidates

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the very recent United States Supreme Court opinion upholding Florida’s judicial rule prohibiting judges and judicial candidates from directly soliciting campaign contributions.  The case is Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, No. 13-1499.  (April 29, 2015).  The link to the opinion is here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/13-1499_d18e.pdf

A Florida lawyer named Lanell Williams-Yulee was a 2009 candidate for a county court judgeship.  She signed a letter asking potential voters to donate to her campaign.  She lost the election and was subsequently prosecuted by The Florida Bar as a lawyer for an alleged violation of 7C(1) the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct.  After the lawyer was found guilty, The Florida Supreme Court reviewed the matter and upheld the guilty finding.  The lawyer then filed for a Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Canon, arguing that it violated the First Amendment by restricting her speech.

As background, the Florida Supreme Court implemented the prohibition of direct solicitation for judges and judicial candidates in the 1970s after three of that Court’s justices resigned as a result corruption scandals. The opinion states that, “(a)ccording to the American Bar Association, 30 of the 39 States that elect trial or appellate judges have adopted restrictions similar to Canon 7C(1).”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion which upheld the prohibition of direct solicitation.  Interestingly, he was on the same side as the four liberal justices.   The opinion states:

“Unlike the executive or the legislature, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse; . . . neither force nor will but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton) (capitalization altered). The judiciary’s authority therefore depends in large measure on the public’s willingness to respect and follow its decisions.”

 

“A State’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary extends beyond its interest in preventing the appearance of corruption in legislative and executive elections, because a judge’s role differs from that of a politician. Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U. S. 765, 783. Unlike a politician, who is expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of supporters, a judge in deciding cases may not follow the preferences of his supporters or provide any special consideration to his campaign donors. As in White, therefore, precedents applying the First Amendment to political elections have little bearing on the issues here.”

“Yulee relies heavily on the provision of Canon 7C(1) that allows solicitation by a candidate’s campaign committee. But Florida, along with most other States, has reasonably concluded that solicitation by the candidate personally creates a categorically different and more severe risk of undermining public confidence than does solicitation by a campaign committee. When the judicial candidate himself asks for money, the stakes are higher for all involved. A judicial candidate asking for money places his name and reputation behind the request, and the solicited individual knows that the same person who signed the fundraising letter might one day sign the judgment. This dynamic inevitably creates pressure for the recipient to comply, in a way that solicitation by a third party does not. Just as inevitably, the personal involvement of the candidate in the solicitation creates the public appearance that the candidate will remember who says yes, and who says no. However similar the two solicitations may be in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public.”

 

“The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years, but it is not the Court’s place to resolve that enduring debate. The Court’s limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.”

“(W)e hold today what we assumed in White:  A State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.”  “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office. A State may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money. We affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his dissent, states that “(b)y cutting off one candidate’s personal freedom to speak, the broader campaign debate that might have followed—a debate that might have been informed by new ideas and insights from both candidates—now is silenced” along with the “educational process that free speech in elections should facilitate.”

 

Bottom line:  This is an important U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a Florida prohibition of solicitation by a judge or judicial candidate in the ongoing (and long running) debate regarding the balancing of First Amendment/free speech with the regulation of judicial elections.  The decision is surprising since the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority has stricken down virtually every campaign-finance limitation in the past decade, stating that political contributions spending are the equivalent of free speech, which generally cannot be limited.  In addition, Chief Justice Roberts joined the four liberal justices in the decision.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

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