Opinion lets judges share theirs

An ethics committee says answering surveys doesn't constitute as bias.

Published August 9, 2006

Judicial candidates often recoil when asked for their opinions on hot social issues, fearing that they will violate rules that forbid them from appearing biased.

An opinion released Monday frees them up to express more of their judicial philosophies.

The Florida Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee said it's okay for candidates to fill out surveys seeking their views on controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion.

"The mere expression of an opinion does not necessarily mean the person giving the opinion has researched the issue exhaustively, or that the person would not be amenable to altering the opinion in the face of capable advocacy," the committee decided. "That is, expressing an opinion does not automatically indicate closed-mindedness."

The opinion came with some strict rules.

Candidates who fill out surveys must clearly state that they are not making a promise to rule a certain way. They must also emphasize that they will follow the law and binding precedent if the issue comes before them in court. And, in giving their answers, candidates cannot appear to endorse any individual who is likely to run for election or the platform of any political party.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission, which regulates judges' conduct, is not bound to follow the opinion. Behavior that is consistent with the opinion, however, may be used as evidence of a good faith effort to follow the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.

The advisory opinion, from a group of 10 judges and two lawyers, came in response to questions about whether candidates could fill out surveys sent out by the Florida Family Policy Council and the Christian Coalition of Florida.

The surveys asked questions about assisted suicide, slot machine gambling and gay adoption, among other topics. The two organizations use the information to send out voting guides.

The surveys sought mostly yes or no answers from candidates, not lengthy or nuanced responses. The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee cautioned that some questions about the law need more comprehensive answers.

"In the present case, we leave to the candidates' professional judgment whether such brevity is sufficient," the committee stated.

Bill Stephens, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, said the committee's opinion is "better than where we were."

Many candidates typically responded that judicial rules of conduct kept them from answering the group's survey, he said. Only a few filled it out entirely, he said.

Florida Family Policy Council president John Stemberger called the opinion a victory. He said about 50 of 240 candidates across Florida responded to his group's survey, but most said they could not answer the questions on social issues because of the judicial code of conduct.

In light of the opinion, Stemberger said e-mails will be sent to candidates asking them to respond or submit new replies before the group's voter guides are issued Aug. 21. Stemberger said his group may provide online access for candidates' full explanations, but it would be difficult to catalog responses if every one includes an essay.

"We don't want slippery lawyers giving us vague answers," he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.