So you’re going to be a judge

In its findings in a recent judicial discipline case, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission noted that the respondent-judge was, at the time of his misconduct, a new judge “who underestimated the process of transitioning from a well-respected, professional lawyer to a judge, and made a series of significant missteps.”  Inquiry re Contini (Florida Supreme Court November 10, 2016).  (The judge was reprimanded for sending an ex parte e-mail to the public defenders’ office while attending new judges’ training; failing to seek a recusal or transfer when an appeal of his denial of a motion to recuse based on the e-mail effectively froze his division; and making impertinent and belittling remarks in open court about that appeal.)

To ensure a smoother transition, anyone who because a judge-elect following this month’s elections might want to refer to a recent article published in Court Review, the journal of the American Judges Association, and written by the author of this blog.  Entitled “So You’re Going to Be a Judge:  Ethical Issues for New Judges,”  the article begins by recommending that, “[a]fter being elected or appointed to the bench, a budding judge should immediately sit down and read the code of judicial conduct for her jurisdiction.”

Relying on judicial ethics advisory opinions, the article then lists the inquiries a soon-to-be judge should make about his community, financial, fiduciary, and political activities to evaluate what changes he should make even before taking the bench to be in conformance with the code after taking office.  It also considers what gifts a new judge may accept, including receptions, that are offered to mark the new position, and examines whether a judge-elect can practice law between the election and taking office.  The article discusses at length the winding up of a law practice, including duties to clients, payments for prior legal work, and disassociation from a firm.  For example, the article notes that, “with certain conditions, after taking office, a judge may receive payment of legal fees for prior work done as an attorney, including hourly fees, flat fees, and contingency fees, from former clients, former partners, former firms, successor lawyers, or successor firms,” and then elaborates on those conditions.

In addition, the fall 2010 issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter has an article on “Disqualification Issues Faced by New Judges.”  The topics covered include whether a judge is disqualified when a former client appears before the judge, when a former law firm or partner appears, and when a case is related to a case or investigation that was pending in a government office when the judge worked there.  For example, the article describes the majority rule that a judge is disqualified from cases involving a former partner or firm as long as the judge is receiving payments for her former interest in the firm, identifies the states that have a bright line rule requiring a new judge to disqualify for a specific period from cases involving a firm, and lists the factors judicial ethics committees have advised judges to use in evaluating whether to recuse from cases in which a former partner or firm appears even after the financial relationship ends and in states with no set disqualification period.

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