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Sue Carlton: On judges, guns and impartiality

By Sue Carlton
1st District Court of Appeal Judge L. Clayton Roberts [Florida 1st District Court of Appeal]

Life is good when you're a judge.

You go to law school, become an attorney and attain a position so prestigious people call you "your honor." You sit on the bench and ponder intriguing nuances of the law. You make rulings that, no exaggeration, change lives.

There's also that nifty gavel and the nice robe.

But with this prestige comes a price. And it's that you're generally not supposed to wear your politics on the sleeve of that robe.

Judges have to look like they are hearing cases without the kind of bias that would make us assume they will lean this way or that. They're not supposed to lend their lofty titles to, say, raise funds for an organization — unless that fundraising is all about the law.

They can vote. Live their lives. Believe in what they believe in.

But they're also supposed to act with as much judicial impartiality as a human can humanly muster.

So did you hear the one about the two Florida appeals court judges who bought tables at a recent charity "Friends of NRA" fundraiser and were listed as judges on the program under "sponsors and supporters"?

As the Times' Steve Bousquet reported this week, 1st District Court of Appeal Judges Clay Roberts and Kemmerly Thomas both did thusly for a recent Tallahassee event to support a National Rifle Association charity that is supposed to be about supporting causes like school safety and gun accident prevention, according to the program.

Both judges told the Times they asked to be listed by name only, not judicial title, and that they did not see the program ahead of time.

Oops. Because those impressive titles were there anyway. And if you are the cynical sort, you might think the powerful and politically savvy NRA would not be displeased by the implications:

See? Even the judges get behind our gun rights causes! Says so right there!

Now if you see no potential harm in all of this, would you be okay with your judges named as "sponsors and supporters" of, say, a Planned Parenthood fundraiser? Or for a cause with which you did not agree and one that might indicate a specific leaning by said judges?

Me neither.

And for the record, legal issues regarding gun rights — the "stand your ground" law strongly backed by the NRA, for instance — have been known to come before judges in Florida.

Any ensuing debate on this will no doubt look at previous opinions: The Florida Supreme Court has said it's okay for judges to get involved in fundraising if the activity has to do with the law, legal system and the administration of justice. The state's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee once opined that a judge should decline an invitation to a dinner for a veterans group because the group wasn't law-related.

Judge Thomas told the Times she was at the NRA charity event as a citizen, not a judge, and that her participation had nothing to do with fundraising. Both said they did not lend their titles to the function.

Here's hoping the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which handles disciplinary matters for Florida judges, give us some clarity on what is and isn't okay when it comes to the wearing of the robe, and what can and can't be on its sleeve.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]