tampabay.com

Bar group's code warns judges on sex conduct

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published February 12, 2007


MIAMI - A model code of conduct for state and local judges spells out, for the first time, that they are to avoid "sexual advances, requests for sexual favors" and other such unwelcome behavior.

Ethics and women's groups pushed for even more specific language, but said they welcome recognition of a problem they say persists to a disturbing degree.

The rules, last revised in 1990, could be adopted today at the American Bar Association's meeting in Miami.

Women who complain about harassment by judges, the groups say, too often meet with indifference or hostility from state commissions that are supposed to police judges' behavior.

"Why is this necessary? The things that go on are quite astounding," said Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program. The program is a collaboration of female judges and Legal Momentum, a women's rights group.

The code is not binding. But it long has served as a model that individual states use.

It covers a range of conduct, including ethical behavior for judicial candidates, when judges may accept gifts and in what instances they should disqualify themselves from hearing cases.

The draft that the ABA has prepared has been criticized on several fronts. One reason was a proposed change, since deleted, that would have weakened language on admonitions to judges to avoid not just actual impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety.

Some ethics experts also said the rules do not go far enough in reining in expense-paid trips for judges and their spouses to legal seminars.

Such a code will resonate in the Tampa Bay area, which has had its share of judicial scandal

In July 2006, the Florida Supreme Court approved an agreement between Pinellas Judge Brandt Downey and the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees state judges.

The JQC had accused Downey of viewing pornography on his office computer, pursuing improper relationships with female lawyers and disregarding evidence of a sleeping juror during a murder trial.

The JQC and Downey worked out a compromise in which Downey would receive a public reprimand, write a letter of apology, retire at the end of the year and never seek judicial office again.

As part of the agreement, Downey admitted only the pornography charges. The other cases were essentially dropped, though Downey did admit to the justices during a hearing that his actions regarding the female lawyers were improper.

In 2000, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ed Ward resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed several women at the courthouse.