Preserving the Integrity of the Judiciary: Ethics on the Campaign Trail
The Honorable Donald A. Myers, Jr.
Chief Judge, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court
Chief’s Column // The Briefs // June 2020, Vol. 88 No. 5
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, March 2020 marked the beginning of a robust election season in the State of Florida with partisan political races charging forward at both the local and national level. People all over the country began casting their votes in the presidential primaries in February, marking the official beginning of the race for the presidency of the United States. The unofficial race for the presidency, however, started well over a year ago. Scores of people hit the campaign trail, raising money and courting votes – kicking off what is likely to be one of the most contentious and acrimonious presidential races in our nation’s history, one that may ultimately shed little light on the candidates’ character or their ability to serve in the role.
Certainly more “under the radar” than the presidential race, this is also the season for judicial campaigns and elections in the State of Florida. Candidates for county and circuit court judicial positions qualified to run in April 2020. Although qualifying just wrapped up, some local judicial candidates began hitting the campaign trail more than a year ago, forming committees to raise money and seeking endorsements many months in advance of the August 2020 elections. It seems that our local judicial races are beginning earlier and earlier with each passing election season.
In contrast to the presidential and other partisan races, our local judicial campaigns should not mirror the divisive rhetoric and other campaign tactics we have seen on the national stage. All candidates for judicial office, even non-judges seeking the position, must adhere to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibiting inappropriate political activity. The intent of the rules that apply to judicial races is to reflect a higher ethical standard, to rise above contentious politics, and to instill confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
Acrimonious, partisan campaigns undermine the public’s confidence – not just in the candidates running in a particular election, but in the entire judicial branch. Canon 7 clearly outlines the expected behavior for candidates, raising the bar of ethical campaign behavior to the highest standards with straightforward, common sense rules. No partisan speech or political activity. No direct solicitation of campaign contributions by a candidate. No promises, pledges, or commitment that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of a judge’s duties in office.
Instead, Canon 7 compels judicial candidates to: be faithful to the law; not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism; maintain the dignity appropriate to the office and act consistently with the impartiality, integrity, and independence of the judiciary; and speak and act with utmost honesty and truthfulness about themselves and their opponents. Judicial campaigns should focus on character, qualifications, and experience. Emphasis should be on the things that truly speak to a candidate’s ability to serve on the bench. To be a judge is to take on the mantle of fairness. And, to be fair, a judge needs to stand firmly in the middle ground, in between both sides of an issue – casting aside personal opinion and belief in favor of the facts and the law.
Some of you reading this column qualified as a candidate in April. Others of you will take active roles in judicial campaigns. And, it is likely that many of you will financially support or endorse candidates. Whatever your role, take the time to educate yourselves about the judicial election process. Know the mandates of Canon 7, follow them, and stay out of trouble! Be especially careful in matters of campaign finance – previous sanctions for failing to comply have included fines up to $25,000. Know how to solicit funds lawfully. Play fair. And, campaign ethically.
Regardless of the role you play in this election cycle remember, your actions matter. Campaign misconduct will not be tolerated on any level. (As the Florida Supreme Court said, “[T]o allow someone who has committed such misconduct during a campaign to attain office to then serve the term of the judgeship obtained by such means clearly sends the wrong message to future candidates; that is, the end justifies the means and, thus, all is fair so long as the candidate wins,” In re: McMillan, 797 So. 2d 560, 573 (Fla. 2001), quoted in the removal of a judge for campaign misconduct in the last judicial campaign cycle. In re: Santino, 257 So. 3d 25 (Fla. 2018).)
The judicial branch plays far too important a role in people’s lives to have its integrity diminished by contentious campaign tactics. Our communities deserve better. And, as professionals who have committed ourselves to serving the law, we should offer better. So, as we move into the thick of this election cycle, I encourage you to remember our shared commitment to the law and our communities and to work together to elevate the election process to mirror the highest standards of the bench.
The Honorable Donald A. Myers, Jr., chief judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, was elected to the Circuit Court for Orange and Osceola counties in 2010 and has been an OCBA member since 1980.