May 01 2012

A Recipe for Trouble

Published by under News

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that some candidates for the 2013 judicial elections in Allegheny County have announced their candidacies on Facebook. Well, of course they have. Facebook is free, easy to use, and a great way to get a message

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out.  But, at least one candidate — an assistant district attorney — has taken down his page in light of questions about the propriety of using Facebook at this early stage.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct limit when judicial campaigns can raise money, but there are not clear rules about “announcing one’s candidacy.”  As PMC’s Shira Goodman explained, however, “People would see this person is running for judge and the person might say, ‘Maybe I should give them money,’ ” Goodman said.  In short, beginning a campaign this early and this way can have unintended consequences.

But the real problem is not Facebook; it’s that we choose judges through a system that makes them campaign and raise funds.  Electing judges is the real recipe for trouble.

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Dec 15 2009

Judges “Unfriending” Lawyers in Florida

Published by 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.

To join a discussion about this topic, become a fan of our Facebook page and leave your thoughts!

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Dec 11 2009

Facebook Users — Please Help PMC with Just a Few Clicks

Published by under News

For those of you who are fans of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and also facebook users, there’s an easy way to help PMC while you’re busy on facebook. Chase Charitable Giving is running a challenge that will award $5 million to small nonprofits. The first stage will award $25,000 to the 100 nonprofits who get the most votes on facebook.  Please vote for PMC in this challenge.  Voting ends today, and you get 20 votes — we only need one.

Vote Now by clicking here:

Voting ends on December 11th!


If you are on Facebook, here’s all you will need to do to vote:

Instructions:

1) Click here: http://apps.facebook.com/chasecommunitygiving/charities/781338

2) After clicking on the link above, Facebook will ask you if you want to “Allow Access” to Chase Community Giving (CCG).

3) Click the “Allow” button (note – you can always remove the application from your account after you vote, but it is not an annoying application, as some can be).

4) This will bring you to our page on the CCG Facebook site.

5) In order to vote, you must click the “Become a Fan” button. This will make you a “fan” of CCG.

6) Vote for PMC by clicking the “Vote for Charity” button with the handprint image.

Thanks for your support. Remember, voting ends today!

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Oct 20 2008

Tales from the Minnesota Campaign Trail

Published by under Judges,News

It’s not a judicial election year in Pennsylvania, but many other states are electing judges this fall.  Two stories from Minnesota illustrate some of the problems inherent in electing judges.

We’ve long pointed out that judicial elections often turn on random factors like ballot position, name recognition and fundraising ability rather than demonstrated skill, qualifications and experience.  A long-serving local judge in Minnesota is facing his first challenger in years.  The incumbent’s campaign co-chair reports that:

[The challenger] has done almost nothing since filing for the race. He has not established a campaign committee nor has he responded to requests for information from the Minnesota State Bar Association, Minnesota Lawyer or the StarTribune. As far as can be determined, Mr. Link is a real estate lawyer with no significant courtroom experience. It has been reported that he chose to run against Judge Bush solely because of the incumbent judge’s “politically unpopular” last name.

In addition to the name recognition game, judicial campaigns continue to grow more and more like other campaigns for public office.  Legal Blog Watch reports that two candidates for the Minnesota Supreme Court have taken their campaigns to Facebook. Mark Cohen of Minnesota Lawyer Blog has commented, “While campaigns run in the virtual world are all well and good, I would like to see a real-world debate between [the candidates].”

We understand that when a state elects its judges, candidates have to be creative in raising funds and running campaigns.  But we think these types of campaigns don’t do much to ensure that the most qualified, skilled and experienced candidates reach the bench.

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