Judicial candidates must consider ethical rules when campaigning

This fall Manatee County voters have a chance to elect a county judge. Here's a look at how one becomes a judge, how and why judges can be appointed to the bench by the governor and elected by voters, and the ethics behind judicial campaigns with links to additional resources.

Judges can be both appointed and elected

In Florida, voters elect judges or the governor appoints a judge to the bench if a sitting judge does not complete his or her term in office. All appointed judges must eventually run for election to keep their seat once their initial appointment term ends.

When elected, trial court judges serve a six-year term. If a presiding judge is unable to fulfill the six-year term, the governor appoints a successor from a list of names provided by the Judicial Nominating Commission for that jurisdiction. The newly appointed judge must then run in the next general election to retain their seat. Once elected, the judge’s term is six years.

judicial elections news graphicThe governor appoints appellate judges and Supreme Court justices from a list of names provided by the Judicial Nominating Commission for that jurisdiction. The appellate judge or justice must then face a yes or no (“retention”) vote in the next general election. Once they win the retention election, the appellate judge or justice will serve a six-year term. 

There are no term limits for judicial officers in the State Courts System, but all must retire by their 75th birthday. 

In order to be elected or appointed to the bench, an individual must have graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association; must be a member of The Florida Bar; must be a registered voter; and must reside in the geographic area they will represent. 

The rules, or 'Canons'

Canons are ethical rules that govern the conduct of judges, giving them a principled framework from which to work.

Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct has seven Canons:

  • Canon 1: A judge shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary
  • Canon 2: A judge shall avoid the impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities
  • Canon 3: A judge shall perform the duties of judicial official impartially and diligently
  • Canon 4: A judge is encouraged to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice
  • Canon 5: A judge shall regulate extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with judicial duties
  • Canon 6: Fiscal matters of a judge shall be conducted in a manner that does not give the appearance of influence or impropriety; etc.
  • Canon 7: A judge or candidate for judicial office shall refrain from inappropriate political activity

Canon 7 is a list of DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to running a judicial campaign. In the commentary to Canon 7, candidates can find guidance about campaign literature and avoiding the appearance or suggestion of political party affiliation, among other topics. Canon 7 advises that judicial candidates may discuss their qualifications to be a judge or explain their ideas to improve the administration of justice, but they may not promise or pledge to be anything other than faithful to the law and impartial as a judge.

To learn more about Canon 7, or about the other six Canons of Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, visit the Florida Supreme Court website.

Additional Resources

The American Bar Association
The American Bar Associations’ Model Code of Judicial Conduct creates standards for the ethical conduct of judges and provides guidance to those running for judicial office. The ABA first published this book in 1990.

The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar launched "The Vote's in Your Court," a webpage loaded with information regarding judges and judicial elections. Resources for voters include a link to The Florida Bar's "Guide for Florida Voters," biographies of appellate judges and Supreme Court justices facing merit retention in November, and a list of important election dates for 2020.

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinions
The Florida Supreme Court established the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC) in 1976 as the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges. The Supreme Court approved a request in 1997 to rename the committee the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. The JEAC interprets Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct and applies it to specific circumstances that judicial candidates and judges may face while running a campaign. Examples of past advisory opinions: What information can be included in campaign advertising? Can a judicial candidate accept endorsements or help from political parties? Who may ask for judicial campaign contributions?

Because this topic is so important, and because the Florida Supreme Court takes allegations of campaign misconduct seriously and can lead to the removal from office, the JEAC established a subcommittee to provide quick responses to time-sensitive, election-related questions.

Judicial Nominating Commissions
The nonpartisan Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) consists of nine members appointed by the governor. Four members are lawyers and come from a list of nominees from the Florida Bar and the governor directly appoints the remaining five non-lawyer members. Each member serves a four-year term. The JNC’s goal is to “locate, recruit, investigate, and evaluate applicants for judicial office.” After interviewing applicants, the JNC will submit three to six names to the governor who makes the final selection from the list.

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