As we have noted before, right-wing groups around the country are inundating judicial candidates with questionnaires demanding to know their views on everything from the right to choose to marriage equality.
There has been some debate in Florida about whether it is appropriate for candidates running for seats on local courts to answer these questions since doing so could create the appearance of having pre-judged issues that might come before them should they win election to the bench.
Focus on the Family is reporting that the state’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has decided that judicial candidates can indeed answer such questions
The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee notified judicial candidates that it’s OK to answer questions and express their views to assist voters in making educated choices.
The resolution came in response to an inquiry whether candidates should respond to questionnaires from the Florida Family Policy Council and the Christian Coalition of Florida.
The six-page decision indicated that “answers do not constitute a promise that the candidate will rule a certain way in a case.”
James Bopp, Jr., counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech, said the committee’s decision echoes the First Amendment.
“This is a victory for all involved,” he said. “Judicial candidates can exercise their First Amendment right to speak, and voters can make informed decisions about whom to vote for on election day.”
If you were just to have read FOF’s report, you’d have no idea that the Advisory Committee’s decision was actually far more measured
A Florida judicial ethics panel once again has left judicial candidates more or less on their own in deciding whether to respond to questionnaires from special interest groups that seek to pin down their views on hot-button social, political and legal issues.
In response to requests from candidates for guidance, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee reiterated Monday that judicial candidates can respond to such surveys as long as they make it clear that their answers are not promises of future rulings. It previously took a similar position.
The 12-member committee, chaired by 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Robert Benton II, said the state Code of Judicial Conduct does not prevent candidates from making statements on “general judicial philosophy.”
“Judicial opinions on most controversial legal issues will have been the subject of scholarly analysis (e.g., law review articles), from which endeavor judges are not barred,” the committee wrote.
But the committee cautioned candidates that there is a thin line between publicly announcing their opinions and violating the state rule against committing to a particular judicial position. “It must be remembered that, when considering motions for disqualification, the ‘eye of the beholder’ is the primary focus,” the committee wrote.
Four of the committee members took a slightly stronger position, stating that refusing to answer judicial survey questions “might be an ethical imperative.”
The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opinion stated that candidates who choose to respond to these surveys must “clearly indicate” that they will follow the law and legal precedents regardless of their personal opinions. Trial court judges are required to follow higher court precedents — including the Florida Supreme Court rulings about which the candidates are being asked their opinions.
The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s actual decision reads
[ISSUE] May a candidate for judicial office respond to questionnaires which cover such subjects as same-sex marriage, parental notification, and school vouchers, and whether the candidate agrees or disagrees with recent court decisions?
ANSWER: Yes, so long as (1) the candidate clearly indicates that the answers do not constitute a promise that the candidate will rule a certain way in a case; (2) the candidate clearly acknowledges the obligation to follow binding legal precedent anywhere it exists; (3) the candidate does not appear to endorse any other individual who is likely to stand for election to or retention in any public office or any platform of a political party; and (4) any commentary on past judicial decisions is analytical, informed, respectful, and dignified.
That is a little different than FOF’s cursory “they said it’s okay to answer our questions” interpretation.