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Florida Court on judges and Facebook friends

Stacked3Here is this week's Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Florida Court on judges and Facebook friends

Courts and ethics committees have been grappling with the issue of judges using social media for years now. At first, the general consensus seemed to be that judges should avoid social media at all costs since any online connections compromised the judge’s appearance of impartiality.

For example in 2012, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal reached this very conclusion in Pierre Domville v. State of Florida, No. 4D12-556 and disqualified a judge from overseeing a case because the judge was Facebook “friends” with the prosecuting attorney.

In my Daily Record article about this case, I disagreed with this conclusion, explaining that: “Judges are human beings with lives outside the courtroom. They have preexisting friendships with attorney colleagues that didn’t cease to end when they became judges. To issue ethics decisions that prevent judges from interacting on social media with the very same lawyers with whom they regularly interact in public is nothing short of ridiculous. Let’s hope Florida remains in the minority on this issue.”

Fortunately, as time advances and social media use permeates our culture, opinions on judges using social media are likewise changing with the times. Case in point: the an opinion recently issued by the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida, which expressly conflicted with the the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s determination in Domville.

At issue in Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United States Automobile Association, No. 3D17-1421 was whether the judge assigned to the matter should be disqualified since he was Facebook “friends” with counsel for the defendant.

In reaching its determination on the issue, the Court noted that a friendship between a judge and an attorney is typically insufficient, in and of itself, to present an inherent conflict of interest: “(W)e note as a general matter, that “allegations of mere ‘friendship’ with an attorney or an interested party have been deemed insufficient to disqualify a judge.”

The Court also wisely acknowledged that the rate at which social media and its many platforms has changed over the years necessarily affected its analysis in the case at hand: “(E)lectronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook ‘friend’ may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook ‘friends’ varies greatly.”

Next, the Court turned to the issue of assessing the nature of a Facebook friendship in the present day and explained that a connection on Facebook does not necessarily indicate a close personal connection: “A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to…(a) casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a ‘friend of a friend;’ or even a local celebrity like a coach. An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.“

As such, the Court concluded that it was departing from the holding in Domville and was declining to disqualify the judge in the case at hand: “Because a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact
that a judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend.’ On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

It’s heartening to see courts and ethics committees changing with the times and issuing opinions that reflect the current state of social media and technology. Our society is being transformed by the Internet and technology at a rate never before seen. It’s not always easy to keep up, so kudos to Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal for setting a great example and keeping pace.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for solo and small law firms. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at niki@mycase.com.