Adopting the recommendation of the Judicial Standards Commission, which was based on stipulations, the North Carolina Supreme Court publicly censured a former judge for inappropriate and sexual communications on Facebook with numerous women; a pattern of failing to diligently discharge his judicial duties in order to engage in conversations or physical encounters with women; and related misconduct. In re Pool (North Carolina Supreme Court June 11, 2021).
On his Facebook page, the judge identified himself as the Chief District Court Judge in Marion, North Carolina. His Facebook page was public so anyone could see his posts and comments. He had thousands of “friends” on Facebook and frequently posted his own photos or comments or commented on others’ posts.
From November 2018 to May 2019, the judge, who is married, engaged in conversations on Facebook that ranged from inappropriate and flirtatious to sexually explicit with at least 35 women, many of whom were litigants or witnesses in matters pending in his district and some of whom appeared or worked in his court in their professional capacities. The judge had ex parte discussions through Facebook with some of the women about pending proceedings. The judge often asked for photographs of the women or shared photographs of himself. The judge and some of the women also had telephone conversations, exchanged texts, and met, sometimes for sexual encounters. The judge used the prestige of his office to assist some of the women, including using his position as Chief Judge to direct an attorney to assist a litigant with whom the judge was having a sexual relationship.
After the judge exchanged inappropriate electronic communications and nude photographs with Ms. T., she attempted to extort him. During the investigation of her extortion attempt, the judge misused the prestige of his judicial office to solicit assistance from local law enforcement and made material misrepresentations to the State Bureau of Investigation.
A comparison of his Facebook records and official reports showed that, when the judge was posting, commenting, and private messaging women on Facebook, he was often on the bench, although during times when he was not actively presiding in a case and his direct attention was not required. The judge routinely sought to arrange personal meetings with women through Facebook and frequently took breaks and continued cases to have conversations or physical encounters with them. Court personnel observed that the judge was frequently on his cell phone while on the bench, would often “disappear” during recesses and lunch breaks, and would continue or recuse from many cases for “very tenuous” reasons.
The judge made material misrepresentations to the Commission during its investigation.
The judge retired in December 2019. In early October 2020, the judge was diagnosed with early-stage Frontotemporal Dementia, which can manifest itself in a lack of control of sexual impulses. The judge agreed that, based on his misconduct and that diagnosis, he will not seek a commission as an emergency judge or a retired recall judge or attend judicial conferences or continuing judicial education programs.
The Court agreed with the Commission that censure was appropriate because the judge is no longer a sitting judge, has agreed not to serve again, had 18 years of distinguished service, and has expressed remorse.
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In new Ethical Principles for Judges, the Canadian Judicial Council has included several comments regarding judges and social media. For example, there are general warnings that “judges should exercise caution in their use of social media” and that “their social media activities should be undertaken in ways that avoid compromising public confidence in the judiciary.” A comment reminds judges that:
Social media activities are subject to the overarching principles that guide judicial behaviour. Judges should be aware of how their activities on social media may reflect on themselves and upon the judiciary and should be attentive to the potential implications for their ability to perform their judicial role.
The principles also suggest that a judge “may wish to inform family members of the ways in which their social media activities could reflect adversely on the judge.”
A comment states that “judges should avoid engaging in activities on social media that could reasonably reflect negatively on their commitment to equality.” Noting that “judges’ communications and associations with others are commonly used as a basis for claims of lack of impartiality,” commentary directs judges who use social media to “exercise great caution in their communications and associations within these networks, including expressions of support or disapproval.” Comments emphasize that social media communications are “more public and more permanent than many other forms of communication,” can “be re-transmitted beyond the originators’ control and without their consent,” and “can be shared, almost instantaneously, with a vast audience and may create an adverse reaction far beyond what one may have considered possible.”
Commentary also reminds judges that social media creates “greater opportunities” for others to try to communicate inappropriately with them and to try to influence them, requiring that judges “be cautious in their communications on social media relating to matters that could come before the court.”