Two judges who serve on Florida’s First District Court of Appeal were table sponsors at a recent “Friends of NRA” charity fundraiser and were both listed by the title “Judge” in the event’s program, under the heading of “sponsors and supporters.”
Judges Clay Roberts and Kemmerly Thomas both confirmed they purchased tables for the Sept. 15 event in Tallahassee. Both also said they asked the NRA that they be listed in the program by name only, not by title, and that they did not see the program beforehand.
Contributions to the Sept. 15 event in Tallahassee support The NRA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity. The program said the NRA Foundation supports initiatives such as school safety, gun accident prevention and crime victim awareness. Two Republican candidates for governor, Richard Corcoran and Adam Putnam, were platinum sponsors.
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct states that judges “shall not use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for fundraising or membership solicitation.”
The Florida Supreme Court amended the code in 2008 to allow for judicial participation in fundraising in the context of “quasi-judicial activities” and “extra-judicial activities” concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice.
If an event is sponsored by a group or governmental entity devoted to the improvement of the law, the legal system, the judicial branch or the administration of justice, and the event concerns the law, the legal system or the administration of justice and the funds raised will be used for a law-related purpose, a judge may “speak at, receive an award or other recognition at, be featured on the program of and permit the judge’s title to be used,” the court said.
Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, which provides ethical guidance to judges and judicial candidates, said in a 2011 case that a judge should decline an invitation to attend a dinner for a “respected veterans‘ organization” because it did not qualify as a law-related group. In 2009, the panel told a judge not to attend an ORT America event because the group is devoted to education, not the law.
In a 2012 decision, JEAC ruled that a judge could not attend a dinner of a religious organization even after the judge’s name was listed as a member of a host committee for fundraising purposes without his approval. The panel wrote: “The judge’s presence at the gala dinner would be lending the prestige of the judge’s office to further advance the interests of the religious organization.”
Thomas, who was appointed to the court in 2016 by Gov. Rick Scott, said she paid $400 for her table and attended as a citizen and not as a judge, which she called “a big distinction.” The judge said the event helps “really good programs for young people.”
“I, in no way, helped in assisting them with their fundraising. I bought tickets for a table,” Thomas told the Times/Herald. “Certainly we were not there in our capacity as judges. We were there as a citizen or as an individual.”
Roberts, who was appointed to the appellate bench by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007, said he told NRA’s Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion Hammer, that he was supposed to be listed in the program by his name only.
“I was supposed to be listed as Clay Roberts,” he said.
Hammer said she included their titles as a sign of respect and that they were there “as private citizens.”
“Neither Judge Roberts nor Judge Thomas had an opportunity to see or proof the copy before it was printed,” Hammer said in an email. “They had no idea that their titles were used. They have done nothing wrong and there is certainly nothing with me showing respect.”
Judge Thomas said of Hammer: “She‘s always extremely ethical. I know that if we had called her she would have done it (removed the judges’ titles) immediately ... We never lent our name to the event.”
Dean Bunch, a lawyer who took part in JEAC rulings for eight years, said: “If a judge buys a table and that‘s not known until the event, then clearly the judge is not being used to raise money, because the people at the event have already given the money.”
Richard Greenberg, a Tallahassee lawyer who has represented judges and lawyers in ethics matters, said “it does not sound appropriate” for judges to attend an NRA charity event.