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General magistrates need not recuse themselves when former colleagues appear before them

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GavelGeneral magistrates are not required to automatically disqualify themselves from cases in which a recently resigned magistrate appears as counsel of record, according to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.

Acting March 1 in Opinion 2023-02, the advice comes following an inquiry from a judicial officer who wanted to know, if a former magistrate joins a private law firm that regularly appears before the court, whether that would require the remaining magistrates to automatically disqualify themselves.

The inquirer cited former JEAC opinions 04-06 and 10-36 as precedent, which outlined recusal or disclosure based on a judicial officer’s prior legal employment. In those instances, the JEAC opined that “[t]wo years is a reasonable period of time for a judge to disqualify himself or herself from hearing any cases handled by the judge’s former law firm, so long as at the end of two years there are no financial ties between the judge and former law firm.”

In this instance, the JEAC said it could answer the inquiry “fairly succinctly,” that magistrates are not required to automatically disqualify themselves.

“The concern underlying this query seems to be that the general magistrates of a judicial circuit are akin to a law firm or an agency, such that, following this general magistrate’s departure, the remaining magistrates are ‘placed in the shoes’ of a newly appointed judicial officer vis-à-vis the departing magistrate. For purposes of the judicial canons applicable to general magistrates, however, that is not an apt comparison,” the JEAC said.

The opinion went on to say that in the context of judicial ethics, a general magistrate is more akin to a constitutional officer than to an attorney at a law firm or governmental agency.

The JEAC cited Fla. Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 3E(1), that requires a judge to disqualify him or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

However, in this current opinion, the JEAC said, “General magistrates working together in the same court are obviously colleagues. It is certainly not uncommon for colleagues to develop close friendships. If that is the case with any individual general magistrate concerning the resigning magistrate, they should disclose that relationship if their former colleague comes before them in a case.”

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is charged with rendering advisory opinions to judges and judicial candidates on the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to their circumstances. While judges and candidates may cite the opinion as evidence of good faith, the opinions are not binding on the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

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