In response to an inquiry from a judicial candidate, the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued an opinion addressing the new judicial campaign fund-raising methods necessitated by “social distancing, self-quarantine requirements, and other requirements in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-9.
The candidate asked 2 questions about virtual events:
- May a judicial candidate appear on a computer or TV screen during a video meet and greet or video fundraiser while a donation button appears on the screen?
- May a judicial candidate appear on a computer monitor for a virtual fundraiser and can a donation button appear if the candidate leaves the screen temporarily, and then the button disappears when the judicial candidate reappears on the screen?
In response, the committee emphasized that “the same principles applicable to in-person campaign events and activities are applicable to virtual campaign events and activities. Specifically, a judge or judicial candidate may not in any way take part in the solicitation of campaign contributions.”
The committee concluded that a judicial candidate may appear on screen during a virtual fund-raiser sponsored by the candidate’s campaign committee – as long as there is no donation button on the screen. The committee explained that allowing a candidate appear when a donation button is also on the screen would be the same as “permitting a member of the committee of responsible persons to hold up a donate sign, while the judicial candidate was addressing potential supporters at an in-person campaign event or activity.”
Further, the committee advised, a candidate must leave a virtual meeting before the campaign committee asks for contributions and “may not come back to the virtual meeting after the ask.” It explained: “The candidate should leave the virtual meeting when the solicitation occurs, so as to avoid the impression which a reasonable person may draw that the solicitation was being made by the candidate.” To “more clearly eliminate concerns over the appearance of improper soliciting,” the committee added that the candidate’s departure from the virtual meeting should be announced because “simply leaving a virtual meeting is not always that easily noticed by those who continue to participate.”
The candidate also asked the committee 2 questions about telephonic events:
- May a committee of responsible persons solicit donations for a judicial candidate during a telephonic campaign event if they are in another room other than the judicial candidate and the judicial candidate temporarily leaves the event during the request?
- May a judicial candidate work with a committee of responsible persons to do introductions telephonically and once the judicial candidate leaves the conversation may members of the committee solicit support and/or donations?
The committee stated that a candidate may appear during a telephonic campaign event sponsored by the candidate’s campaign committee but must leave the event before the committee asks for contributions, the departure must be announced, and the candidate may not come back to the event after the ask.
Finally, the committee prohibited a candidate from making introductions during a telephonic campaign event before leaving the conversation to allow members of the committee to make the solicitation. The committee explained that solicitation method is a “’transparent attempt to avoid a “personal” solicitation. It remains solicitation by the candidate but done with a wink and a nod. The presence of the candidate in the conversation continues. It is as if the candidate is looking over the shoulder of the solicitor.’” The committee quoted Wisconsin Advisory Opinion 1997-7. The committee did add that a candidate may advise or give direction to a member of the campaign committee about “persons from whom to solicit contributions, without otherwise being present during the solicitation.”
The Florida code of judicial conduct provides:
A candidate, including an incumbent judge, for a judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates shall not personally solicit campaign funds, or solicit attorneys for publicly stated support, but may establish committees of responsible persons to secure and manage the expenditure of funds for the candidate’s campaign and to obtain public statements of support for his or her candidacy.
The prohibition on personally soliciting contributions is similar to Rule 4.1A(8) in the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge to the prohibition in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, 575 U.S. 433 (2015). The prohibition on personally soliciting publicly stated support was eliminated from the model code in the 2007 revisions.