You might remember our report last year on the Florida judge who resigned after accepting Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from lawyers who had a pending case before him.
The lawyers were representing plaintiff in a slip-and-fall case against Wal-Mart. The day after the jury came back with a defense verdict, one of the lawyers called the judge’s assistant and offered the judge tickets to that night’s Rays game against the Boston Red Sox. The judge accepted five tickets (for great seats, if that makes a difference).
The judge asked for more tickets to a game against the Twins — four days after hearing the lawyers’ motion on behalf of the plaintiff to set aside the jury verdict. The firm complied; this time, one of the lawyers delivered the tickets in open court.
The judge granted the plaintiff’s motion to set aside the verdict, and granted a new trial. The judge resigned ahead of a disciplinary hearing on his conduct.
What about the lawyers?
At the time, I wondered about the lawyers, pointing to Model Rule 3.5(a) (barring lawyers from seeking to influence judges by means prohibited by law) and Model Rule 8.4(f) (knowingly assisting judge in conduct that violates rules of judicial conduct or other law).
Sure enough, a referee last week recommended that each lawyer receive an admonishment and a year’s probation for his misconduct — and be required to speak at CLE’s for new lawyers and veteran lawyers about the incident. Each was also ordered to pay almost $5,400 in costs. The recommendation now goes to the Florida Supreme Court for review.
“It never crossed my mind…”
At the disciplinary hearing, one of the lawyers said that in offering the tickets, he thought they were doing something nice for the judge because the trial had been contentious. They had seen the judge wearing a Red Sox cap, and knew it was his favorite team.
The other lawyer testified that “It never crossed my mind … how bad it looked and how improper it was … it should have, but it didn’t.” He said he had no intent to influence the judge, and it never occurred to him that the judge might be influenced by the tickets.
The lawyers each had more than 30 years of experience. They testified that their firm’s policy now prohibits offering baseball tickets to anyone at the courthouse.
The referee recommended that the lawyers be found guilty of violating Florida’s versions of Model Rule 3.5(a) (so I called that one). The other violations found were Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); Rule 8.4(a) (violating a Rule or assisting another to do so); and a rule unique to Florida, Rule 3-4.3 (commission of any act that is unlawful or contrary to honesty and justice).
Paved with good intentions
The referee did not find that the lawyers “acted with any corrupt intent to create a quid pro quo situation.” But they should have known that their gift would create an appearance of attempting to influence the judge presiding over their case. “The rules require the profession, both attorneys and judges, always to think about the implications of their words or actions. That these two attorneys … were so thoughtless and oblivious here is unacceptable.”
The referee based the recommendation for an admonishment and probation on several mitigating factors: the absence of actual prejudice to the defendants in the underlying case (the grant of the motion for new trial was set aside on appeal, although not because of the tickets); the lawyers’ remorse and acknowledgment of their misconduct; and evidence of their good character and their “many public service and charitable works.”
What are the lessons here? Giving gifts is nice, but you shouldn’t step into the batter’s box when the umpire is the judge on your case. An admonishment and probation, while the lightest forms of discipline in Florida, are nothing to welcome. And, as we’ve mentioned before, if you are caught in a rundown, taking responsibility for misconduct is certainly the way to go.