In an article on top judicial ethics stories of 2014, the winter issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter describes several cases in which judges were disciplined for inappropriate electronic communications (in those cases, e-mail and a university fan-site) and one in which a judge was disciplined for striking up an inappropriate relationship with a litigant on Facebook. The Center for Judicial Ethics keeps track of decisions and advisory opinions on judges and social media in a frequently up-dated on-line document.
So far in 2015, two more cases have been added to the list of judges who have gotten in trouble on social media. These cases are a reminder to judges to follow the warnings of judicial ethics advisory committees that, although judges may participate on social media, they must proceed with extreme caution and resist the temptations.
A New Mexico judge admitted that he had endorsed candidates for public office on Facebook, after retiring but while designated a pro tempore judge, and continued to endorse candidates on Facebook and post their campaign materials on Facebook after telling the Judicial Standards Commission he would stop. That a Facebook “like” is an inappropriate endorsement has been established by other discipline cases and advisory opinions.
In the second case, during a child support dispute with the father of her twins, an Indiana judge responded to a photo on his Facebook page with: “Must be nice to take such an expensive trip but not pay your bills. Just sayin’.” It is difficult to know if she would have been publicly disciplined if that were her only misconduct; however, she had also engaged in other injudicious, public off-bench conduct involving her children’s father and his girlfriend; had engaged in on-the-bench misconduct, including misusing her judicial authority and failing to follow proper legal procedures in guilty plea and sentencing hearings; and had failed to cooperate with the Judicial Qualifications Commission. She resigned and consented to a permanent ban from judicial office.
There may be at least one additional social media case this year, although whether it will lead to a finding of misconduct and discipline remains to be seen. An investigative panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission filed a notice of formal charges last year alleging that a judge demonstrated a pattern of behavior that “is inexplicable, appears to demonstrate instability, and is disruptive,” including failing to show professional competence and to effectively fulfill her judicial duties. Two of the examples of alleged misconduct involved Facebook. In one dissolution of marriage proceeding, the judge had made a “friend request” on Facebook to one of the parties; on advice of counsel, the party did not respond. The judge entered a final judgment against that party, the party filed a motion for disqualification, and the judge denied the motion, but the court of appeals reversed. The judge also commented “yep, justice comes swiftly” on the Facebook page of a party in a second dissolution case; the adverse party filed a motion to disqualify, which was granted. The judge (in a motion to dismiss that has been denied) argued the Commission allegations were de minimus and amounted to alleging she failed “to understand how Facebook worked.”