Sometimes, respecting the rules of the game means you have to lose.
That was the message delivered Friday at an ethics forum for judicial candidates held in Tallahassee. Similar events were held around the state this week.
Current and retired judges and others briefed several area contenders for judgeships on Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, which also applies to candidates.
“To be ethical, you have to be willing to lose” an election, said retired appellate judge Robert Benton. “Following the rules may require you to leave something undone that would have gotten you more votes.”
The Supreme Court of Florida, which ultimately disciplines the state’s lawyers and judges, has gotten tougher in recent years. The justices often refuse lighter recommended punishments from investigators, opting for tougher sanctions, including removal from the bench.
Leon County Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson read off a litany of cases, including some where judges were actually removed after adverse ethical findings stemming from their campaigns.
One question candidates should ask themselves: “Would you do it in front of your mother?” Ashenafi Richardson said. “Remember that your decisions can come back to bite you.”
Another lesson was not to appear biased. It seems common sense, but many candidates still run afoul.
She mentioned examples of judicial candidates in years past who said they “identified with crime victims” or that they had “the heart of a prosecutor.”
“You want to be perceived as someone who will listen, who is not predisposed to one side or the other,” Ashenafi Richardson said.
Other tips included not appearing at political party events, not overstating one’s experience, and not using family members as surrogates to attack opponents.
Attorney Bill Davis, a Florida Bar representative, also told attendees they’re responsible for the actions of those who campaign for them.
Attorney Monique Richardson, who’s vying for a Leon County judgeship, said she had already read “dozens” of ethics cases to prime herself for the campaign.
“By the time you get to this point, you really just are enforcing things you already know,” she said. “I’m mindful of all of the rules. Any one of them can cause a problem, and each is equally important.”
Chief Judge Jonathan Sjostrom of the 2nd Judicial Circuit told the group to master the art of self-restraint.
“To run for office you have to accept the restraints,” said Sjostrom, who heads the judicial circuit surrounding the state capital. “You have to respect the (rules) enough to lose an election.”