The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly admonished a judge for posting comments about pending cases on her Facebook page. Public Admonition of Slaughter and Order of Additional Education (April 20, 2015). The Commission also ordered that she obtain 4 hours of instruction with a mentor on social media. The judge told the Houston Chronicle she will appeal the admonition.
The judge’s Facebook page identified her as a judge and was accessible to any person who wished to view it. Although comments about two additional cases were also covered by the admonishment, it focuses on posts about the jury trial of David Wieseckel on charges he kept a 9-year-old boy in a 6-foot-by-8-foot wooden enclosure. In a post on April 26, 2014, the judge stated, “We have a big criminal trial starting Monday! Jury selection Monday and opening statements Tues. morning.” In response, the following day, someone posted on the judge’s page: “One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies is ‘Hang ‘Em High’, jus [sic] sayin [sic] your honor…..”
On April 28, in oral and written instructions, the judge admonished the jury not to talk about the case, for example, stating “no texting, e-mailing, talking person to person or on the phone or Facebook” and adding, “these rules apply to jurors the same as they apply to the parties and to me.”
On April 29, after the first day of testimony, the judge posted on her Facebook page, “Opening statements this morning at 9:30 am in the trial called by the press ‘the boy in the box’ case,” and “After we finished Day 1 of the case called the ‘Boy in the Box’ case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6’x8’ ‘box’ inside the courtroom!” At time, the “‘actual’ box” had not been admitted as evidence. She also linked to a Reuters article entitled, “Texas father on trial for putting son in a box as punishment.” The article had information about extraneous offenses, which the judge had instructed the jury to disregard and which had not been admitted into evidence.
Defense counsel filed a motion to recuse the judge and a motion for mistrial based on her Facebook comments. Both motions were granted by other judges.
The judge argued her comments promoted “transparency,” encouraged “individuals to come watch the proceedings,” did not suggest her probable decision, and were true and based on publicly available information. The Commission concluded, however, that the judge’s public Facebook posts were “clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties and cast public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice in light of the considerable negative media attention given the case and her posting.”
Despite her contention that the information she provided was public information, Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the Wieseckel case or in other high-profile cases. The comments went beyond providing an explanation of the procedures of the court and highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced at trial.
The Commission also found that the judge’s Facebook activities interfered with her judicial duties, noting the recusal and mistrial.
This case has been added to the list of decisions and advisory opinions involving social media the Center for Judicial Ethics keeps here.