More Facebook fails

Based on stipulations and agreements, the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct recently admonished 2 judicial officers for Facebook posts soliciting contributions to non-profit organizations.  (A public admonishment is “the least severe disciplinary action available” to the Washington Commission.)

In both orders, the Commission emphasized that the “prohibition against judicial solicitation of money does not reflect on the worthiness or virtue of the charity or cause in question” and “a near blanket prohibition upon fundraising by judicial officers is necessary as it would be impossible to exercise principled distinctions based on the nature of the charity involved, and it would be improper to have a government agency such as a conduct commission make such value choices.”  Noting that most judges “are quite conscious that they may not solicit funds for themselves or others in face-to-face encounters,” the Commission stated that “there is not a meaningful or workable distinction between in-person and written or electronic solicitations (although solicitations could be more or less egregious, depending on the context).”  The Commission noted that “social media is a relatively new form of communication,” “the law tends to lag behind technology,” and “[t]here has not yet been a Commission opinion addressing social media, so need for guidance is greater than in other areas.”

Thus, the Commission publicly admonished a supreme court justice for 2 posts soliciting support for non-profit organizations.  In re Yu, Stipulation, agreement, and order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct December 7, 2018).

Since 2013, the justice has maintained a Facebook page that, “[i]n Facebook parlance,” is a “government official” page that anyone can access and that no one can “friend.”  She does not solicit “followers” for the page.  The page identifies the justice as a member of the judiciary.  The justice is actively engaged in the community, she uses the page to educate viewers about matters related to the judicial branch, and her posts are intended to make the court and judicial officers more accessible and transparent to the public.

On April 22, 2018, the justice posted on her Facebook page:

Join Lifelong for Dining Out For Life on April 26!

On Thursday, April 26, raise your fork for Dining Out For Life!  Join Lifelong at one of 90 restaurants in the Greater Seattle Area who are set to donate 30-50% of their proceeds to vital programs that support people facing serious illness and poverty in our community.

https://www.diningdutforlife.com/seattle

Lifelong is a non-profit organization that provides recovery assistance for persons suffering from drug abuse and addiction.

On April 28, the justice posted on her Facebook page about Real Change, a weekly newspaper that employs homeless and previously homeless people as vendors.

I know many of you wonder what you might do about homelessness.  There are a myriad of policy issues that deserve your attention.  I can’t advise you on any of them.  But, here is one concrete thing you can do each week:  buy the “Real Change” newspaper from a vendor that you see on the street comers in Seattle.  They buy the paper for .60 and sell it for $2.00.  It is a business for each vendor.  The paper has interesting articles on housing, poverty, and other social issues.  If you don’t have cash, most will take payment with Venmo.  But how hard can it be to withdraw some cash each month, stuff it in your pocket, and just commit to buying the paper each week?  Support these folks who are just trying hard to earn some money in an honest way.

Screenshots of the 2 posts are included in the Commission order.

The Commission explained:

While these Facebook posts present no articulable element of coercion, the Commission finds that it is still an abuse of the prestige of judicial office.  The prestige is appropriately reserved for the service of the office itself, and not to be used for the individual benefit of the judge or others, regardless how generally good the cause may be.

Given the nature of her Facebook communications, the justice did not believe the posts rose to the level of a solicitation, but she acknowledged that the Commission is the body charged with interpreting facts and enforcing the code and deferred to its determination that the posts violated the code.  Recognizing that greater guidance is needed on the increasingly prevalent use of social media, the justice believes the stipulation will provide such guidance and raise awareness of the risks of sharing information on social media that could be construed as solicitations or endorsements.

The Commission also publicly admonished a judge for a post on his Facebook page encouraging people to attend a charity fund-raiser.  In re Svaren, Stipulation, agreement, and order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct December 7, 2018).  The judge had attended a “pancake feed” held to benefit the families of people killed during a mass shooting at the Cascade Mall in September 2016.  On his Facebook page, which is titled “Judge David Svaren,” the judge posted photos of signs at the event and text that read:

The Burlington Fire Department Pancake Feed is happening now and 100% of the proceeds go to benefit the families of the victims of the recent tragedy at Cascade Mall.  Please consider attending, it runs until noon today.

After a few weeks, the judge removed the post after reviewing it and realizing it may violate the code.  The judge was unable to recall or explain why he had not recognized at the time he made it that the post would violate the code.

In mitigation, the Commission noted, for example, that the judge has a long history of productive service as a judicial officer, had no prior discipline, cooperated with the Commission’s proceeding, and “recognized the problematic nature of the conduct, and removed the post even prior to contact from the Commission.”  However, the Commission concluded that its “failure to act on a case involving a Code violation on social media, even one with strong mitigators, could wrongly signal to judges and the public that online Code violations are somehow exempt from enforcement.”

See also In re Prewitt, Order (Missouri Supreme Court November 24, 2015) (public reprimand for, in addition to other misconduct, numerous posts on Facebook about charitable fund-raising events that noted a judge’s support for the organizations and encouraged others to contribute); In the Matter of Johns, 793 S.E.2d 296 (South Carolina 2016) (6-month suspension without pay for Facebook posts about a fund-raiser for a church, in addition to other misconduct); Private Warning and Order of Additional Education of a Municipal Court Judge (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct August 23, 2012) (private warning for entries on a Facebook page that indicated to the public that the judge was an organizer for a charitable fund-raiser); Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board Annual Report (2017) (private letter of caution to judge who re-posted a photographic advertisement of a fund-raising event for a charitable institution); Public Admonition of Metts (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 3, 2018) (public admonishment for organizing a school supply drive using court staff and advertising it in Facebook posts, soliciting donations to an individual in a Facebook post, and advertising his donation of a rifle to a charitable organization’s raffle in a Facebook post).

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A 2-part article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics was published in the spring and summer 2017 issues of the Judicial Conduct ReporterPart 1 was a general introduction to the topic and a discussion of issues related to judicial duties:  “friending” attorneys, disqualification and disclosure, ex parte communications and independent investigations, and comments on pending cases.  Part 2 covered off-bench conduct:  conduct that undermines public confidence in the judiciary, commenting on issues, abusing the prestige of office, providing legal advice, disclosing non-public information, charitable activities, political activities, and campaign conduct.  Summaries of advisory opinions and cases up-dating the 2-part article are available here.

Facebook codes

The current version of the American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct does not make any reference to social media, not surprising since, when it was adopted in 2007, Facebook had only been available outside of colleges for 1 year, Twitter was only 1 year old, and Instagram and Snapchat had not even been created.  Even without an express reference, however, as numerous cases and advisory opinions have stated, the code obviously applies with equal force to virtual actions and on-line comments and in cyberspace as well as to more traditional forums for communication.

In addition, 4 states have adopted provisions in their codes that remind judges of their ethical obligations while on social media.

Most recently, the California Supreme Court adopted new language to commentary to Canon 2A that states:

A judge must exercise caution when engaging in any type of electronic communication, including communication by text or email, or when participating in online social networking sites or otherwise posting material on the Internet, given the accessibility, widespread transmission, and permanence of electronic communications and material posted on the Internet.  The same canons that govern a judge’s ability to socialize in person, on paper, or over the telephone apply to electronic communications, including use of the Internet and social networking sites.  Those canons include, but are not limited to Canon 2B(2) (lending the prestige of judicial office), 3B(7) (ex parte communications), 3B(9) (public comment on pending or impending proceedings), 3E(2) (disclosure of information relevant to disqualification), and 4A (conducting extrajudicial activities to avoid casting doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially, demeaning the judicial office, or frequent disqualification).

Comment 5, Rule 3.1 of the Idaho code of judicial conduct states:

While judges are not prohibited from participating in online social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like, they should exercise restraint and caution in doing so.  A judge should not identify himself as such, either by words or images, when engaging in commentary or interaction that is not in keeping with the limitations of this Code.

The West Virginia code includes a comment to Rule 3.1 that emphasizes:  “The same Rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct that govern a judicial officer’s ability to socialize and communicate in person, on paper, or over the telephone also apply to the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook.”

The preamble to the New Mexico code encourages judges and judicial candidates “to pay extra attention to issues surrounding emerging technology, including those regarding social media” and urges them “to exercise extreme caution in its use so as not to violate the Code.”

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A 2-part article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics was published in the spring and summer 2017 issues of the Judicial Conduct Reporter.  Part 1 (http://tinyurl.com/y99relfw) was a general introduction to the topic and a discussion of issues related to judicial duties:  “friending” attorneys, disqualification and disclosure, ex parte communications and independent investigations, and comments on pending cases.  Part 2 (https://tinyurl.com/y8mdda4d) covered off-bench conduct:  conduct that undermines public confidence in the judiciary, commenting on issues, abusing the prestige of office, providing legal advice, disclosing non-public information, charitable activities, political activities, and campaign conduct.  Summaries of advisory opinions and cases up-dating the 2-part article are available here  https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Topics/Center%20for%20Judicial%20Ethics/SocialMediaandJudicialEthics%20Update.ashx

 

 

Standing alone:  Facebook friendship and disqualification

In the first decision on the issue by any state supreme court, the Florida Supreme Court held that, standing alone, a judge’s Facebook “friendship” with an attorney appearing in a case did not disqualify the judge.  Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association (Florida Supreme Court November 15, 2018).

The Court began with the “general principal” that a traditional friendship between a judge and an attorney, standing alone, did not require disqualification, noting that traditional friendship “varies in degree from greatest intimacy to casual acquaintance.”  Facebook friendship, the Court found, “exists on an even broader spectrum,” varying “in degree from greatest intimacy to ‘virtual stranger’ or ‘complete stranger.’”

Therefore, the Court held, disqualification was not required:  no reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on a judge’s Facebook friendship with an attorney that “in and of itself,” provided “no significant information about the nature” of their relationship, indicated only “a relationship of an indeterminate nature” without revealing “the degree or intensity of the relationship,” and did not “signal the existence of a traditional ‘friendship’” much less “a close or intimate relationship.”

The Court disagreed with the reasoning of Florida Advisory Opinion 2009-20, which stated that a judge may not be friends on Facebook with lawyers who may appear before the judge.  (The advisory opinion itself does not mention disqualification or the appearance of partiality.)  That opinion explained that, because a judge’s Facebook friends may see who the judge’s other Facebook friends are, the judge’s selection of some attorneys as friends on Facebook and rejection of others and communication of those choices conveys, or permits others to convey, the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge, violating the code of judicial conduct.

Citing advisory opinions from other states and noting that the Florida committee’s position was clearly the minority position, the Court stated that focusing on the public nature of Facebook friendship was “unwarranted.”  The Court explained that even “traditional ‘friendship’ involves a ‘selection and communication process,’ albeit one less formalized than the Facebook process,” as people “traditionally ‘select’ their friends by choosing to associate with them to the exclusion of others” and “traditionally ‘communicate’ the existence of their friendships by choosing to spend time with their friends in public, introducing their friends to others, or interacting with them in other ways that have a public dimension.”

The Court did not discuss whether a judge should disclose a Facebook friendship with an attorney in a case under the comment to Canon 3B of the Florida code of judicial conduct that “[a] judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might consider relevant to the question of disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no real basis for disqualification.”  Cf., Comment 5, Rule 2.11 ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct (2007) (“A judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification”).

In a concurring opinion, 1 justice “strongly urge[d] judges not to participate in Facebook” and encouraged new judges who have existing Facebook accounts to deactivate them.  The concurring justice argued that “judges must avoid situations that could suggest or imply that a ruling is based upon anything” other than the facts and the law even if, as he agreed with the majority, “’friendship’ on Facebook, without more, does not create a legally sufficient basis for disqualification.”  Recognizing that Facebook may be the primary way some judges “stay in touch with family members, actual friends, or people with whom they have reconnected after many years,” the concurring justice suggested that, “at the very least,” judges should carefully “limit their ‘friendships’ to cover only such individuals.”

In a dissent, 1 justice argued that, when the differences between Facebook “friendships” and traditional friendships “are taken into account,” “it is clear that judges’ Facebook ‘friendships’ with attorneys who appear in their courtrooms can easily cause an appearance of impropriety.”  The dissenting justice explained that, contrary to the premise of the majority, “equating friendships in the real world with friendships in cyberspace is a false equivalency.”

The existence of a Facebook “friendship” may reveal far more information regarding the intimacy and the closeness of the relationship than the majority would assign it.  For example, as the majority explains, once a person becomes “friends” with another Facebook user, that person gains access to all of the personal information on the user’s profile page—including photographs, status updates, likes, dislikes, work information, school history, digital images, videos, content from other websites, and a host of other information—even when the user opts to make all of his or her information private to the general public. . . .  Additionally, the ease of access to the “friend’s” information allows Facebook “friends” to be privy to considerably more information, including potentially personal information, on an almost daily basis.

The dissenting justice emphasized that she was not attacking “the responsible use of social media.”  The dissent noted that the Court, The Florida Bar, and many other groups have public Facebook pages that “disseminate information and enhance the role of judges, lawyers, and the judiciary in the public domain” but only allow individuals to “follow” the pages, not become Facebook friends.  The dissent suggested that judges should adopt that model to eliminate the appearance of impropriety caused by the “self-selection” friending process.

Further, the dissent argued, the majority’s standard forced a litigant to engage in “impractical and potentially invasive” discovery “to determine with whom the judge has connected, with whom the judge has declined to connect, and what type of communication the judge engages in” on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other sites to determine if there was something more than a mere Facebook “friendship” that could justify filing a motion for recusal.  The dissent urged the Court to “at least adopt parameters for judges to follow when engaging with social media.”  The dissent noted factors listed by a California advisory opinion for a judge to use in determining whether to friend an attorney:  the nature of the judge’s social networking site; the number of “friends” on the judge’s page; the judge’s practice in determining whom to include; and how regularly the attorney appears before the judge.  California Judges’ Association Advisory Opinion 66 (2010).

As the dissent suggests, when disqualification is not automatically required, as the majority held, a judge must still consider whether a Facebook friendship with an attorney — alone or in combination with other factors — raises a reasonable question about the judge’s impartiality whenever the friend appears in a case.  The relevant factors can be extrapolated from opinions regarding disqualification based on a traditional friendship and the list of factors in the California advisory opinion referenced by the dissent.  The list of factors for determining whether there is “something more” than a mere Facebook friendship that requires disqualification include:

  • The frequency of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the attorney;
  • The substance of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the attorney;
  • The scope of the social media friendship;
  • The nature of the judge’s social networking page (for example, whether it is more personal or professional);
  • The number of “friends” the judge has on the page;
  • The judge’s practice in deciding whom to “friend” (in other words, whether the judge is very exclusive or more inclusive when deciding whom to add); and
  • Whether the judge and the attorney have frequent, personal contacts in real life as well as on-line.

Thus, for example, a judge’s impartiality is more likely to be reasonably questioned and disqualification is more likely to be required when an attorney/Facebook friend appears in a case if the judge’s Facebook account primarily has posts about personal activities, or if his Facebook friends are mainly his family and close, personal friends, or if he is very selective when adding to his friend list, or if the judge and the attorney comment on each other’s posts, or if the judge and the attorney and their families also socialize in real life.  In contrast, a judge’s impartiality is not likely to be questioned and disqualification is not likely to be required when that friend appears in a case if the judge’s Facebook account is focused more on court business and the judge’s professional activities, if the judge has many friends on the page, if those friends are primarily professional acquaintances, if the judge allows everyone to follow him, and if the judge and the attorney only interact in court or at bar meetings.

 

 

More campaign Facebook fails

The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline recently reminded judicial candidates that “campaign-related social media platforms, such as Facebook, maintained by a campaign committee or others, do not insulate them from the strictures of the Code.”  In the Matter of Almase, Findings of fact, conclusions of law, and imposition of discipline (Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline October 22, 2018).  In that case, the Commission publicly reprimanded a former judge for an image that her campaign manager had posted on Facebook that showed the judge in her judicial robe photoshopped next to the actor Dwayne Johnson, known as the Rock.  The caption read, “It just makes sense:  Re-Elect Judge Heidi Almase.”  Later that evening, the judge commented on the Rock post:  “I’m ‘almost’ taller than him.  Almost.”

The campaign did not have permission to use the Rock’s image.  The judge lost the election.

The Commission found that the post improperly misled the public into believing that the Rock had endorsed the judge’s campaign and that the judge’s comment was “an improper confirmation and ratification of the earlier false Rock Post, thereby further misleading the public.”

The Commission also found that the judge had not taken reasonable measures to ensure that her campaign representatives complied with the code of the judicial conduct, providing her campaign manager and her graphic artist, “in essence, carte blanche and unsupervised access to her campaign Facebook page.”  The Commission noted that the campaign management contract did not contain any restrictions on the posting of social media materials, such as obtaining prior approval from the judge and that the judge did not discuss with her campaign representatives the constraints and prohibitions of the code.

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Similarly, the Florida Supreme Court recently removed a judge from office for false and misleading statements about her opponent her campaign made in an e-mail and on a Facebook page created by an electioneering communications organization formed and administered by her campaign manager.  Inquiry Concerning Santino (Florida Supreme Court October 19, 2018).

In the 2016 election, Santino was a candidate for an open judicial seat; Gregg Lerman was her opponent.  Santino hired Richard Giorgio of Patriot Games, Inc. as her campaign manager.

In September 2016, a Facebook page titled, “The Truth About Gregg Lerman” was created by Taxpayers for Public Integrity, an electioneering communications organization formed and administered by Patriot Games, Inc.  The header of the Facebook page stated:  “Attorney Gregg Lerman has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.  Now he’s running for judge!”  Below that was a photograph of Lerman surrounded by the words, “CHILD PORNOGRAPHY,” “DRUG TRAFFICKING,” “MURDER,” “Identity Theft,” “RAPE,” “Sexual Assault,” “Internet Solicitation of Minors,” and “PEDOPHILES.”  The page also highlighted 4 high profile cases in which, it stated, Lerman “chose” to represent the defendants.  For example, the page stated:  “Instead of representing victims of crime, Gregg Lerman chose to represent convicted serial killer Ronald Knight who targeted gay men and brutally murdered them.  Now, he’s running for Judge!”

Santino’s campaign also sent an e-mail that described Lerman’s legal practice as “limited to criminal defense—representing murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.”

The Court emphasized that the code did not permit the candidate to delegate to her campaign manager the responsibility for written materials created or distributed by the campaign.  The Court held that the judge’s actions “individually and through her campaign, for which she was ultimately responsible—unquestionably eroded public confidence in the judiciary.”  The Court found that the campaign had “expressly stated or implied that Lerman could not be trusted ‘for laboring in an occupation that serves to breathe life and meaning into the Sixth Amendment’” and “falsely communicated to the reader that Lerman was unfit for judicial office because of the type of law he practiced, and the type of clients he represented.”  The Court also concluded that the judge’s campaign statements “evidenced a bias against criminal defendants, toward whom she imputed guilt; against criminal defense attorneys, whom she implied had some character fault because they ‘choose’ to represent criminal defendants; and in favor of victims, whom she boasted that she worked to protect during her legal career.”

Noting that it has previously warned judicial candidates that serious campaign violations could warrant removal, the Court concluded:

Simply stated, Santino’s conduct does not evidence a present fitness to hold judicial office.  It is “difficult to allow one guilty of such egregious conduct to retain the benefits of those violations and remain in office.” . . .  We refuse to endorse a “win-at-all-costs-and-pay-the-fine-later” strategy, especially in light of our past warnings and stated intolerance for the kinds of campaign violations at issue here.

The Court explained that any sanction other than removal would send a message to judicial candidates that they may commit “egregious violations” during their campaigns and “if they win, a suspension or a fine or both will be the only result.  They will be allowed to reap the benefits of their misconduct by continuing to serve the citizens of this state.  This we cannot condone.”

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A 2-part article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics was published in the spring and summer 2017 issues of the Judicial Conduct Reporter Part 1 was a general introduction to the topic and a discussion of issues related to judicial duties:  “friending” attorneys, disqualification and disclosure, ex parte communications and independent investigations, and comments on pending cases.  Part 2 covered off-bench conduct:  conduct that undermines public confidence in the judiciary, commenting on issues, abusing the prestige of office, providing legal advice, disclosing non-public information, charitable activities, political activities, and campaign conduct.  Summaries of advisory opinions and cases up-dating the 2-part article are available here.

 

Another Facebook fail

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly admonished a judge for Facebook posts advertising a school supply drive, soliciting donations for an individual, and advertising his donation of a rifle to a charitable raffle.  Public Admonition of Metts (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 3, 2018).  In response to the Commission , the judge said that a member of his judicial staff handles his Facebook page and other social media accounts, that many posts were made without his prior authorization, and that he is often unaware of what appeared on his Facebook page.

In July and August 2017, there were a number of posts on the judge’s Facebook page promoting “Judge James Metts and Constable Rowdy Hayden’s Annual School Supply Drive.”  In the posts, the judge asked for donations of school supplies to benefit elementary school students in the county.  He also welcomed cash donations in lieu of supplies, asking donors to make their checks payable to him personally.  The posts advised that donations would be accepted at the court office and provided the court’s telephone number as the number for questions.  Pictures of several donors appeared on the page, with posts thanking them individually by name.

In July 2017, a post appeared on the judge’s Facebook page that stated, “I’m Jamie, with Judge Metts’ office and I’m setting up this page at his request,” with a link to a gofundme.com account that she had established to raise funds to help a county resident repair his driveway.  The post included a photograph of the judge working on the driveway.

In April 2017, the judge’s Facebook page reposted an article from the Montgomery County Police Reporter about his donation of an AR-15 rifle to raise funds for Project Graduation, a charitable organization that provides sober graduation parties.  Included was a copy of the flyer advertising the raffle and stating, “AR-15 Raffle Ticket $10 . . . .  Donated by Judge James Metts and Constable Rowdy Hayden.”

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A 2-part article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics was published in the spring and summer 2017 issues of the Judicial Conduct ReporterPart 1 was a general introduction to the topic and a discussion of issues related to judicial duties:  “friending” attorneys, disqualification and disclosure, ex parte communications and independent investigations, and comments on pending cases.  Part 2 covered off-bench conduct:  conduct that undermines public confidence in the judiciary, commenting on issues, abusing the prestige of office, providing legal advice, disclosing non-public information, charitable activities, political activities, and campaign conduct.  Summaries of advisory opinions and cases up-dating the 2-part article are available here.

 

 

Friendship and favors

When a judge’s relationship with someone involved in a case is close enough to require disqualification or at least disclosure may sometimes be difficult to pinpoint.  But the question is easy when a judge vacations with a litigant, posts pictures of them together on Facebook, and receives a caution from a conduct commission.  Further, any appearance of partiality becomes an obvious impropriety when the friend gets favorable treatment in court, as a recent discipline case from Indiana illustrates.

Based on a conditional agreement for discipline, the Indiana Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for failing to recuse from a case in which his friend had received a ticket and securing favorable treatment for his friend.  In the Matter of Johanningsmeier (Indiana Supreme Court August 10, 2018) .

The judge is close friends with B.K., who received a speeding ticket in April 2015.  In early June 2015, the judge and B.K. vacationed together.  On June 18, B.K. failed to appear in court on the ticket; a default judgment was entered, and his license was suspended.

On June 30, B.K. filed a petition for a trial de novo in the judge’s court.  The judge granted the motion the same day and reinstated B.K.’s license, without disclosing the relationship or giving the prosecutor an opportunity to respond, contrary to the trial de novo rule.

In March 2016, in a private caution letter, the Commission advised the judge that his close friendship with B.K. would cause a reasonable person to question his impartiality.  Nevertheless, the judge did not recuse or set the matter for hearing.  The case remained in limbo.

Shortly before Christmas 2016, the judge posted on Facebook a photo of himself, his sister, and B.K. at a party in the judge’s home.  The photo was visible to the public.  B.K. “liked” the photo.

On March 6, 2017, the prosecutor moved for a bench trial in B.K.’s case.  Instead of recusing, the judge set the motion for hearing on March 20.  At the hearing, he stated on the record that the case involved “a friend of mine” and “I was hoping we could just get the State to dismiss it.”  The prosecutor immediately orally moved to dismiss the case, and the judge granted the motion.

The Court found that the judge’s failure to recuse and other actions were “obvious violations of a judge’s most basic ethical duty—impartiality,” diminished public confidence in the judiciary, and “’erode[d] the public’s perception of the courts as dispensers of impartial justice.’”

Another Facebook fail

Based on a stipulation, the California Commission on Judicial Performance publicly censured a former commissioner and barred him from receiving an assignment, appointment, or reference of work from any California state court for (1) “egregious” posts and re-posts on his public Facebook page and (2) representing to his presiding judge and the Commission that he had taken the posts down when that was not true, although he believed the posts were no longer publicly viewable.  In the Matter Concerning Gianquinto, Decision and order (California Commission on Judicial Performance August 22, 2018).  The Commission noted that, because the commissioner had retired, a censure and bar was the strongest discipline it could impose on him.

In 2016 and 2017, the commissioner maintained a public Facebook page that identified him as “Jj Gianquinto,” stated that he “works at Kern County,” and included photos of him recognizable by the public, but did not identify him as a commissioner.

In May 2017, the presiding judge wrote the commissioner that there was a “significant concern” about the “content” of a number of his posts and the “impression” a member of the public might have on reviewing them.  In a written response, the commissioner stated that he had deleted the posts, had refrained from sharing similar posts, and had “designated my Facebook account as ‘private’ which means only my friends can view any future posts.”  On June 28, the presiding judge privately reprimanded the commissioner in writing.

The commissioner self-reported to the Commission, repeating that he had deleted the posts, “refrained from sharing additional posts of a political nature,” and “designated my Facebook account as private.”

However, despite his representations to the presiding judge and to the Commission, until at least August 2, 2017, the commissioner’s Facebook page remained public and 6 of the posts were still on the page.  Although the commissioner had tried to make the changes, his “unfamiliarity with the technology resulted in the changes not taking effect as intended.  When alerted to the fact that the posts were still visible to the public, the commissioner immediately sought further assistance, deleted the offending posts, and increased the privacy settings on his Facebook profile.”

Reproducing screenshots of many of the posts, the Commission decision describes at least 45 posts or reposts that it found were “egregious” and “the type of conduct that inherently undermines public confidence in the judiciary and that brings the judicial office into disrepute.”  The commissioner’s page reflected, among other things, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Native American sentiment, anti-gay marriage and transgender sentiment, anti-liberal and anti-Democrat sentiment, anti-California sentiment, opposition to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, accusations against President Barack Obama, a lack of respect for the federal justice system, and contempt for the poor.

A 2-part article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics was published in the spring and summer 2017 issues of the Judicial Conduct ReporterPart 1 was a general introduction to the topic and a discussion of issues related to judicial duties:  “friending” attorneys, disqualification and disclosure, ex parte communications and independent investigations, and comments on pending cases.  Part 2 covered off-bench conduct:  conduct that undermines public confidence in the judiciary, commenting on issues, abusing the prestige of office, providing legal advice, disclosing non-public information, charitable activities, political activities, and campaign conduct.  Summaries of advisory opinions and cases up-dating the 2-part article are available here.