Social media direction and control

In a recent advisory opinion, the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions stated that, when an appellate justice learns that a staff member has posted a comment on social media that violates the canons, the justice should immediately take steps to remedy the ethical violation.  California Oral Advice Summary 2020-37.  It explained that, “at a minimum, the justice should instruct the staff member to take all reasonable steps to delete or to have removed from public view any improper comment that violates the canons, and then follow up with the staff member to ensure that they have done so.”  Further, the committee stated that, if the justice learns that “an improper comment has already been viewed by the public, republished or otherwise disseminated, then depending on the circumstances, the justice may need to instruct the staff member to correct or repudiate the comment on social media, particularly if the comment is demeaning or offensive, or otherwise undermines the dignity of the court.”

The opinion noted that “appellate court staff can be expected to post their thoughts, comments and opinions online” like anyone in the general public who participates in social media to express themselves and stated that “staff are not prohibited from posting comments on social media about their employment or about the courts in general.”  However, the committee warned that “the canons constrain the content of any such comments and obligate justices to require staff compliance with the canons.”  The committee added that appropriate training would help court staff understand their “vital role” in maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system and “the importance of maintaining confidentiality and impartiality and of upholding the dignity of the court in their postings to social media.”

The inquiry to the California committee was from an appellate justice so the opinion addresses the obligations of appellate justices, but the code provisions it interpreted apply to “anyone who is an officer of the state judicial system.”  The committee based the obligation of justices to “exercise reasonable direction and control” over staff on several provisions in the California code of judicial ethics.

  • Canon 3B(9) states that judge shall require staff and court personnel, like judges themselves, “to abstain from “any public comment about a pending or impending proceeding in any court” and “any nonpublic comment that might substantially interfere with a fair trial or hearing.”
  • Canon 3C(3) states that judges shall require staff and court personnel to, like judges themselves,  “observe appropriate standards of conduct and to refrain from (a) manifesting bias, prejudice, or harassment based upon race, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation, or (b) sexual harassment in the performance of their official duties.”

Rule 2.10(C) of the American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct is similar to California Canon 3B(9).  Rule 2.3(B) of the model code states that a judge “shall not permit” court staff, court officials, or others subject to the judge’s direction and control to, in the performance of their duties, “by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, or engage in harassment, including but not limited to bias, prejudice, or harassment based upon race, sex, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation.”

See also New Mexico Advisory Opinion Concerning Social Media (2016) (“a judge’s supervisory duties include ensuring that court staff do not participate in social networking that would undermine the judge’s responsibilities.  Examples of such activity include engaging in social media exchanges that either involve ex parte communications or statements concerning pending or impending cases”).

Interpreting the codes of conduct for court staff adopted in their jurisdictions, the Arizona Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on Code of Conduct have issued extensive advisory opinions on judicial employees’ use of social media.  See Arizona Advisory Opinion 2014-1; U.S. Advisory Opinion 112 (2014).

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