BUSINESS LAW 101 / Why Judicial Campaigns are Different

By Albert L. Kelley, Esq.

During political campaigns, candidates are expected to participate in debates and answer questions on a variety of topics related to the office they are seeking.  Often, however, for judicial candidates, the answer to questions is “I’m not able to answer that.”  

When registering to run for judicial office, a candidate must sign a Statement of Candidate for Judicial Office, stating that the candidate has received, read and understands the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The Code of Judicial Conduct applies not only to judges, but also to those running for judge.  Once a candidate announces they are running, they are bound by these rules.  There are seven Canons of the Code and of these, the one that primarily affects campaigns is Canon 7: “A Judge or Candidate for Judicial Office Shall Refrain From Inappropriate Political Activity”. Canon 7 is actually several pages long and has specific prohibitions on what a candidate my say or do.  Probably the most restrictive sentence is in the middle of Section 7(C)(3) which states: “The candidate should refrain from commenting on the candidate’s affiliation with any political party or other candidate, and should avoid expressing a position on any political issue.”  Judicial candidates run on a nonpartisan ticket.  This does not mean they must be nonpartisan themselves, although that is acceptable.  But what the Canon states is that if asked what their political affiliation is, they cannot answer.  If asked their opinion on a political issue, they should decline to answer. If asked to support another candidate, they must decline.  Judges are supposed to be neutral in their service.  Cases are not to be decided based on political issues, but based on the law.  This Canon aids in keeping our system of justice fair. 

It can often be difficult for a candidate to know what can be said and what cannot.  For those candidates that have concerns over what they can and cannot do, there are resources.  The primary one is the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.  The Committee was first formed in 1976 by the Supreme Court of Florida as the “Committee on Standards of Conduct for Judges”.  The committee is composed of three district court of appeal judges, four circuit judges, two county court judges, and one practicing member of The Florida Bar. The purpose of the Committee is to render written advisory opinions to inquiring judges concerning the propriety of contemplated judicial and non-judicial conduct. It was renamed in 1997 to more faithfully describe the duties of the Committee, and their task is no longer limited to responding to judges but expands also to candidates.  If a candidate is concerned over what action they may or may not take, they can seek an advisory opinion from the JEAC. Due to the speed that elections occur, responses are expedited.  These responses are merely advisory, however.  It is still up to the candidate to decide how to act or respond, and their response can still be deemed a violation, even if they have sought advice from the JEAC.   

Another source for advice is the booklet entitled “Guidelines to Assist Judicial Candidates in Campaign and Political Activities” published by the JEAC.  This 155-page booklet gives a detailed explanation of all portions of Canon 7.  The booklet uses examples and citations to explain how to respond in various circumstances. 

The third source for advice are the written opinions of the JEAC.  Since 1976, the JEAC has published hundreds of written opinions on various issues. These opinions are posted online at the website for the 6th Judicial Circuit Court for Pasco and Pinellas Counties. The opinions can be searched by year, by subject or by key words. 

While the public may feel that a judicial candidate’s refusal to answer what may seem to be an innocuous question indicates they are hiding something, it more truthfully shows they are simply trying to follow the law. 

Al Kelley has worked as an attorney in Monroe County for the last 32 years. He is the author of five law books available through Absolutely Amazing E-Books and the host of “Basics Of The Law”, a legal YouTube channel. He serves as the Vice Chair of the 16th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Panel.  He also previously taught business law, personnel law, and labor law at St. Leo University. This article is offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney.

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