Florida Judges Should Not Be Facebook Friends With Lawyers Who Appear Before Them – OK to Be Fans During Judicial Elections

Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has ruled that judges should no longer “friend” on Facebook lawyers who appear before them. The committee ruled that online “friendships” could create the impression that lawyers are in a special position to influence their judge friends. The committee did conclude that a judge can post comments on another judge’s site and that during judicial elections, a judge’s campaign can have “fans” that include lawyers. Social networking sites such as Facebook were found to be troublesome because the judge selects the lawyer as a part of the group, and has the right to approve or reject the lawyer’s being listed in the group.

The ruling does not single out Facebook. It applies to any social networking site which requires the member of the site to approve the listing of a friend or contact on the member’s site if: (1) that person is a lawyer who appears before the judge, and (2) identification of the lawyer as the judges friend is thereafter displayed to the public or the judge’s or lawyer’s other friends on the judge’s or the lawyer’s page. Some on the committee dissented, saying judges should be allowed to have Facebook friends because those relationships are more like “a contact or acquaintance.”

The committee found that friending violated the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 2B, which states: “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.” The Opinion reads: 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. Also implicated is Canon 5A, which provides: A. Extrajudicial Activities in General. A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extra-judicial activities so that they do not:

cast reasonable doubt on the judges capacity to act impartially as a judge;
undermine the judges independence, integrity, or impartiality;
demean the judicial office;
interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties;
lead to frequent disqualification of the judge; or
appear to a reasonable person to be coercive.
It goes without saying that lawyers appear before judges who are their real-life friends all the time. Is it perhaps better if everyone knows who the judges friends are? Or since a Facebook friend might not be a real friend of a judge, is the concern just that a Facebook friend could become unfounded fodder for a litigant to complain? It seems to me that this ruling is a good one for lawyers. Imagine the competition between litigation attorneys to garner as many judicial friends as possible.

It seems like a good outcome to limit lawyers ability to curry favor with judges. In another sign of our online social networking times, the local district attorney’s office Montgomery County, Texas, near Houston) has decided to publish on the District Attorneys Twitter page the names of those charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There is much precedent for publishing names of those arrested for drunk driving in newspapers. Last year Nassau County, posted mug shots in the local newspaper of those arrested for drunk driving.

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