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Chief Justice Could Face Thorny Issues If Wife Wins Polk State House Race

Jennifer Canady head shot
News Service of Florida
Jennifer Canady would be the first spouse of a sitting justice to serve in the Florida Legislature in modern history.

The relationship between a sitting Florida judge or Supreme Court justice and a Florida legislator “may very well raise serious issues of judicial conduct and disqualification under the Florida code of judicial conduct.”

Jennifer Canady’s campaign website bills her as a “lifelong conservative” and a “Lakeland native,” attributes that could be considered requisites for the Polk County state House seat she hopes to capture in next year’s elections.

But while it also describes her as a teacher, wife, mother and community leader, what it doesn’t say is perhaps more interesting: Canady’s husband holds one of the most powerful posts in the state — he’s the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Canady’s website notes that she’s been married to Charles Canady for 24 years, but there’s no mention of his day job. That’s because Florida justices, like lower-court judges, are governed by strict ethics rules related to elections, including a prohibition against campaigning for candidates.

Jennifer Canady’s election to the state House could be a history-making victory: She’d be the first spouse of a sitting justice to serve in the Florida Legislature in modern history.

But the Canady union could also prove thorny for the chief justice if his wife — who’s amassed a considerable campaign- contribution advantage over her two fellow Republican opponents — wins the District 40 race, according to legal experts.

The family relationship between a sitting Florida judge or Supreme Court justice and a Florida legislator “may very well raise serious issues of judicial conduct and disqualification under the Florida code of judicial conduct,” University of Miami law professor Anthony Alfieri told The News Service of Florida.

A number of judicial rules, known as canons, establish boundaries for judges related to cases involving family members. For example, one canon instructs judges to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety” in all of their activities. The rule says, in part, “a judge shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct.”

Another canon requires judges to disqualify themselves from cases “in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Potential issues would be highlighted “in cases where legislation or legislative conduct might come before the Florida Supreme Court and potentially benefit or advance the interests of the justice’s spouse,” said Alfieri, the founder and director of the law school’s Center for Ethics & Public Service.

“In such a case, under the code of judicial conduct, the best course for the justice in question would be to disqualify himself if and when the justice’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety and in order to limit the risk of prejudicing the outcome of the case,” Alfieri said.

While Jennifer Canady could make history with a win next year, she wouldn’t be the first legislator married to a powerful judge --- or even the first one in Polk County. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is married to 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge John Stargel, who also was a circuit judge during his wife’s time in the Legislature.

Jennifer and Charles Canady said that, if Jennifer Canady is elected, they will abide by laws and rules and will recuse themselves if the situation requires them to do so.

“This is almost a quarter of a century of partnership, and what I have learned over that quarter of a century is that my husband has spent his entire career in public service meticulously following the law. Our daughters, around the dinner table, if something comes up about a pending or impending case, we don’t discuss it ever. It’s just a very high bar,” Jennifer Canady, 48, told the News Service in a phone interview.

Charles Canady, a former congressman who also served in the state House, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2008 by former Gov. Charlie Crist. Canady also worked as general counsel for former Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, where Canady served until he joined the Supreme Court.

“Chief Justice Canady will follow the guidelines set for all judges and recuse himself whenever there is a reason requiring it,” Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said in an email.

The canons requiring judges to step away from cases to avoid even the appearance of impropriety could be “very problematic” for Canady, Bob Jarvis, a professor of legal ethics at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law, told the News Service.

“It’s the appearance of impropriety because you really don’t have to do anything wrong to run afoul of the code of judicial conduct. You just have to do something that would have a reasonable person question your fairness, your impartiality, your lack of bias, and to have that be the chief justice (or former chief justice) have his or her impartiality questioned, that’s a real problem,” he said.

At a minimum, Jarvis said, Canady will need to consider recusing himself “from any case that comes before the court that involves legislation, or an issue, that his wife had a hand in drafting, voted for, campaigned for, or otherwise publicly supported or opposed,” to ensure that the public doesn’t believe that the justice decided “the way his wife wanted him to.”

The Florida Legislature is preparing to engage in redistricting, a once-a-decade process in which lawmakers draw new maps for state legislative and congressional districts. The maps historically have ended up in battles before the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers will redraw the maps in advance of the 2022 elections, which will change the boundaries of the seat Jennifer Canady is seeking — along with the boundaries of the other 159 legislative seats.

Jennifer Canady, whose website and campaign materials do not include any reference to her husband’s job or photos of him, couldn’t say whether her spouse would have to recuse himself from hearing redistricting cases.

“There are very clear rules. So what we do is, when the circumstance happens, we evaluate based on what’s actually in front of us. And we do not have conversations that are speculative in nature because we know that that would be unwise,” she said. “It depends on exactly what that situation is.”

The Canadys' potential situation “isn’t so much a legal problem as it is a problem of ‘optics,’” Jarvis added.

“It just looks bad for a justice to have his or her spouse be in the Legislature,” he said.

However, Jarvis also noted that prohibiting those types of relationships also could be problematic for the mate known as the “trailing spouse,” a term used to describe the partner of someone who holds office or a prominent position.

“If we did, many people believe it would be unfair to the trailing spouse, who often is the woman. Even where the tables are reversed (i.e., the trailing spouse is the man), there is a feeling that each individual should be judged on their own merits and not be disqualified simply because of who they happened to marry,” he said.

Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.