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Judges must steer clear of victim advocacy groups.

Judges must disassociate themselves from domestic violence councils if they morph into victim advocacy groups, according to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.

In other action, the judicial ethics panel also held that judges may join the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Domestic Violence Councils

Answering a series of questions regarding judges' participation on domestic violence councils, the panel said judges may belong to the councils, so long as the organizations do not become victim advocacy groups. The committee also said it is not a conflict for judges if there are council members who operate for-profit batterers' intervention programs.

It is appropriate for members of the judiciary to attend domestic violence council meetings, the panel also said, and answer questions about court procedures. Opinion Number 01-14.

The inquiring judge is a member of a county domestic violence council, which was created to "work toward the prevention of family violence, to promote victim safety, and to reduce the impact of family violence on individuals, communities and society, through cultural competence, education, support, advocacy and referral."

The judge said for several years the council acted as a clearinghouse for the exchange of information and coordination of efforts among the various organizations, agencies, and individuals working in the field of domestic violence. Recently, however, the council initiated a "Court Watch" program to monitor domestic violence related cases and collect information and statistics on the manner in which they are handled and decided. The council also began keeping statistics on the number of domestic violence injunction requests received, and the number granted or denied, by each judge. The council's chair recently sent a letter to the chief circuit judge critical of the rulings entered in domestic violence injunction cases. The chair requested a meeting with the chief and the judge whose rulings had been the subject of the letter to discuss that judge's "philosophical variance with the thinking of the domestic violence community."

The panel said a judge may serve on a task force, with the understanding that the activities are law related and gender neutral, but cannot be a member of a victim advocacy group.

Pursuant to Canon 5A(l), a judge shall conduct all of extra-judicial activities so that they don t cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge.

In Opinion 98-08, the committee said, "If we are to maintain an independent judiciary, we must resist any efforts to use 'gentle persistence' to involve judges in the political side of issues that come before us."

"A review of the council activities as set forth by the inquiring judge requires the committee to conclude that judicial membership on the council is precluded by the Code of Judicial Conduct," the panel said. "Membership on the council would cast a reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially."

The committee, however, found no conflict of interest per se with judges serving on a domestic violence council with other members who operate for-profit batterers' intervention programs. The committee said since F.S. [sections]741.281 requires that a batterer be ordered to intervention programs as a condition of probation, it is not a conflict for judges to serve with intervention program providers.

"The judge receives no financial gain or other benefit by requiring that a defendant or respondent comply with the statutes by attending a [batterer's intervention program]," the panel said, adding that as long as the defendant can choose which program to attend, the judge is not lending the prestige of the judicial office to further any private interest.

The committee also said judges may attend the council meetings and answer questions about court procedure, as long as no comment is made about a pending or impending proceeding.

American Israel Public Affairs Committee

A judge may belong to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Opinion Number: 01-13.

The inquiring judge said he is a member of the organization, which is a lobbying group. The judge, however, said he is not involved in fundraising activities or membership solicitation, nor does he personally engage in lobbying for AIPAC, which conducts its lobbying in Washington, D.C. The judge's participation consists of paying dues and occasionally attending luncheons.

The panel said, as with all extrajudicial activities, membership in AIPAC is subject to the provisions of Canon 5A, which provides that a judge shall conduct all extrajudicial activities so that they do not:

* Cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge.

* Demean the judicial office.

* Interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties.

"This committee has previously said that a judge may serve on the legislative committee of a lobbying organization, provided that the judge not be personally involved with any lobbying activities and not take part in any fundraising activities," the panel said.

Under the present facts, the panel said, the judge is "a mere member of the organization" and does not anticipate any involvement in the organization's fundraising or lobbying activities.

However, the committee also called the judge's attention to the commentary to Canon 5C(3)(a), which places an affirmative obligation upon judges with regard to their memberships and activities:

"[T]he changing nature of some organizations and of their relationship to the law makes it necessary for a judge regularly to re-examine the activities of each organization with which the judge is affiliated to determine if it is proper for the judge to continue the affiliation."

Four members of the committee disagree and would advise the inquiring judge that membership in AIPAC is prohibited, saying the organization is "very actively" involved in political activities that do not concern the improvement of the law.

"These members believe that even limited involvement of paying dues and attending occasional luncheon meetings would allow the judge's presence to be 'observable to all other persons who are also present, thereby indicating to those persons the moral support that the judge is lending to the political causes supported by the organization,"' the panel said. "They are also concerned that the group's membership roster will reflect that the inquiring judge financially supports the goals of the organization by being a dues paying member."

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory, and conduct that is consistent with an opinion may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the committee's interpretive opinions.

The full text of the opinions is available on the Supreme Court's website at Once there, click on the "Judges' Page" link.
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Author:Killian, Mark D.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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