Dec 15 2009

Judges “Unfriending” Lawyers in Florida

Published by at 3:24 pm under Judges,News

Judges in Florida should take advice from the country music song and “find out who your friends are.” According to the Law Blog of the Wall Street Journal, Sunshine State jurists have been advised by the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (FJEAC) to avoid becoming Facebook “friends” with lawyers who may appear before them in court.

Facebook is a social networking website that allows its 350 million + users to “friend” other users. By creating a network of Facebook friends, users are then able to share personal information, stories, articles, pictures, videos, and a host of applications with people on their network. While the website began as a social tool for college students, it has since expanded to become an all-purpose utility for businesses, charities, organizations, and individuals to share their products, causes, and messages across the world wide web (Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has a Facebook page, located at http://www.facebook.com/CourtReform).  Users can become “fans” of the myriad organizations with pages on the website and thereby stay informed through updates.

Political candidates, including judges in states that still elect judges in popular elections, often create Facebook pages as a means of developing support and distributing information to those interested. And though many working folks prefer to use websites devoted to the career-minded (such as LinkedIn) for their online professional networking, Facebook is becoming an increasingly popular destination for such vocational contact-exchanges.

According to the Law Blog, “while [Facebook] ‘friending’ connotes a level of intimacy greater than, say, an exchange of business cards, it falls well short of establishing or confirming true friendship.” The FJEAC, however, considers the social component of Facebook to great a threat to the independence of judges, and issued this advisory opinion. The opinion poses a series of questions and brief answers, followed by this explanation:

The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer “friends” are in a special position to influence the judge. This is not to say, of course, that simply because a lawyer is listed as a “friend” on a social networking site or because a lawyer is a friend of the judge, as the term friend is used in its traditional sense, means that this lawyer is, in fact, in a special position to influence the judge. The issue, however, is not whether the lawyer actually is in a position to influence the judge, but instead whether the proposed conduct, the identification of the lawyer as a “friend” on the social networking site, conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge. The Committee concludes that such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.

The St. Petersburg Times noted that the ethics ruling requires that judges not only refrain from friending lawyers that may appear before them, but actually “unfriend” any whom they have already friended. The paper points out that “Judges are not bound by the ruling but tend to follow the committee’s advice.” That didn’t stop one Circuit Judge, Pat Siracusa, from dropping 82 friends. Another, Judge Rex Barbas, had a more practical question: “How do you unfriend somebody?” he asked. “And do I get in trouble if I can’t figure it out?

Whether or not this is a trend that other states will follow has yet to be seen. In Pennsylvania, there is currently no such requirement. In fact, there is not even a requirement that a judge recuse his or herself from a case involving a party or attorney who has contributed money to the judge’s election campaign. And, as the St. Petersburg Times article indicates, this leads to some less-than -kosher relationships in the courtroom:

In close-knit courthouse circles, the lines between attorneys and judges are hardly black and white. Lawyers contribute to judicial campaigns. Judges hear cases argued by lawyers they once practiced alongside or have known for years. Judges disclose the connections in open court and sometimes remove themselves from a case if they are too close to the players.

“Sometimes” remove themselves, but not always. The problem of money in judicial selection seems to us a bigger problem than the “friending” issue, but the underlying concern is the same: how do we maintain public confidence that judges are impartial and unbiased? We believe that requires more than rules about social networking — it requires judicial selection reform.

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