A Case of Black Robe Disease

Judges are bound by a code of conduct in the jurisdiction where the judge sits. Like the code governing attorneys, judicial codes vary somewhat from state to state. There are ramifications for judges who break this code, some can be very severe. In the more common scenario, a judge may face criticism for conduct that may be perceived as an inappropriate use of the bench also known as “black robe disease,” when a judge lets her authority over the court go to her head. Take for example the Florida judge who was recently investigated for allegedly using the courtroom to publicize his political views.

The Panel that conducted the investigation determined that the judge issued orders and opinions expressing disagreement with laws newly enacted by the Florida Legislature. In particular, the judge expressed disagreement with the state’s minimum mandatory sentencing and what he believed to be disproportionate prosecution of minorities for drug-related offenses.

The Panel asserted that the judge engaged in a pattern of using his judicial position as a “bully pulpit” in order to espouse his personal views on the criminal justice system. While the Panel noted that the discourse about the criminal justice system may be proper in certain settings, “to do so from the trial bench is wholly inappropriate.” The panel therefore maintained that the judge’s statements violated the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently approved a recommendation that the judge receive a public reprimand, set for April 29, 2014.

Although the ethics rules for practicing attorneys and judges vary, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision serves as a reminder to keep a separation between personal beliefs and professional obligations especially when appearing before the court.