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August 1, 2017
What’s a judge to do with a $10,000 gift?

Florida Code of Judicial Conduct covers many issues that confront judges, but what about disposing $10,000 in cash left anonymously at home in a birthday card?

The problem wasn’t keeping the cash – the judge immediately turned the bundle over to the local Sheriff’s Office, which opened an investigation.

“After conducting an investigation, the Sheriff’s Office determined that the money was almost certainly sent by a person who, at the time the judge received the money, had a case pending before the inquiring judge,” according to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, to which the judge turned for advice. “The presiding judge no longer serves in the same division. The Sheriff’s Office has determined that the evidence is lacking to proceed with criminal charges against the litigant.”

So what’s the problem? The Sheriff’s Office continues to hold the money and, “The inquiring judge seeks guidance as to what the Canons require the judge to do with the money.”

The JEAC noted that obviously accepting the “gift” raises doubts about the judge’s ethics and “the integrity of judicial proceedings. That the gift was from a then litigant whose case was pending before the judge suggest an attempt at bribery.”

As to what to do with the money, the committee noted that any attempt by the judge to control the disposition of the funds could also raise integrity questions, even if the money were directed to a charitable institution. That could be seen as using a judicial office to solicit funds for a particular organization.

The committee concluded with three suggestions: Let the Sheriff’s Office keep the money and figure out what to do with it; have the sheriff turn it over to the Division of Unclaimed Property at the Florida Department of Financial Services; or ask the sheriff to return the money “to the litigant it has identified as the sender.”

Opinion 2017-11 was issued June 24.

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, and to the judiciary at large. Conduct that is consistent with an advisory opinion issued by the committee may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions of the committee.

[Revised: 02-17-2018]