A Florida judge resigned last week in the wake of a state judicial ethics investigation launched after he accepted baseball tickets from a law firm that was actively litigating a slip-and-fall case before him. The judicial-ethics issue should be a no-brainer — but it is also a timely reminder for lawyers about some of the ethics rules governing their interactions with judges.
According to the Notice of Charges filed by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, the judge was presiding over a negligence case against Wal-Mart during the summer of 2015. After a four-day trial, the jury rendered a defense verdict. The next day, the judge instructed his judicial assistant to ask the law firm representing the plaintiff for tickets to that night’s Tampa Bay Rays game against the Boston Red Sox. The law firm obliged with tickets for five excellent seats.
Six days later, the law firm filed a motion to set aside the jury verdict and for a new trial on the plaintiff’s behalf.
Four days after the hearing on the motion, the judge asked the firm for more tickets to a game against the Twins, which the firm again provided. The next day, the judge overturned the jury’s verdict and granted a new trial to the firm’s client, the plaintiff, holding that no reasonable jury could have found that Wal-Mart was not at least partly liable for the injuries to the firm’s client.
The Chief Administrative Judge of the judge’s circuit learned about the tickets and the timing of their receipt, and told him that the conduct was “inappropriate” and must be disclosed to the parties and to the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The judge’s disclosure to the parties only stated that “I previously received Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets” from the firm, without mentioning the damning timing of the requests.
The Commission, after its investigation, wrote that the judge’s “extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Wal-Mart,” although he had never before overturned a jury verdict during his tenure as judge. The Commission noted two other instances where the judge accepted tickets to major league sporting events from other lawyers or law firms that appeared before him.
In his answer to the Commission’s charges of impropriety, the judge apologized. He cited his relatively short time on the bench, and said he didn’t realize what he did “would adversely reflect on the judiciary and the administration of justice.” He said that he had no improper intent and thought that he had to disclose his receipt of sports tickets only on his annual disclosure forms. He denied that his conduct reflected unfitness to serve on the bench.
Fast forward: The judge resigned his position as of March 7 (ahead of a disciplinary hearing scheduled for June), and the Commission voluntarily dismissed its charges against him.
What about the lawyers?
It’s possible that Florida’s disciplinary gears are already engaged against the lawyers involved in this sorry tale, although I don’t know that for a fact.
But Model Rule 3.5(a) bars lawyers from seeking to influence judges by means prohibited by law. And Model Rule 8.4(f) prohibits knowingly assisting a judge in conduct that is a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct or other law. The Florida Rules of Professional Conduct incorporate substantially similar or identical provisions, and likewise advise lawyers to be aware of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and to “avoid contributing to a violation of such provisions.”
What’s the moral of this story as to lawyers? Reserve those great sports tickets for your clients, and steer clear of anything that could put your license in jeopardy.