More Facebook fails

In May 2019, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a complaint alleging that a judge had posted on “his Facebook account a picture of a noose with the annotation, ‘IF WE WANT TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN WE WILL HAVE TO MAKE EVIL PEOPLE FEAR PUNISHMENT AGAIN.’”  The post was viewable by the public.  The judge’s Facebook account was under his name, and he had approximately 121 Facebook friends.

The judge and the Commission stipulated that the image and statement “conveyed and/or appeared to convey racial and/or political bias” and, therefore, that the judge had “failed to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”  The judge resigned, agreed not to seek or accept judicial office in the future, and waived confidentiality to the limited extent that the stipulation can become public; the Commission concluded the proceeding.  In the Matter of Canning, Decision and Order (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct September 12, 2019).  The post was attached as an exhibit to the complaint, which is attached to the stipulation.

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The Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court disqualified a trial judge from a lawsuit brought by the state Attorney General against the state Secretary of Labor because the judge had “liked” a Facebook post supporting the Attorney General’s campaign for governor.  In re Commonwealth of Kentucky, ex rel. Beshear and Jefferson County Teachers Association v. Dickerson (Kentucky Supreme Court September 27, 2019).

The judge was presiding over a suit brought by Andy Beshear the state Attorney General and a county teachers association seeking an injunction against subpoenas the Secretary of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet had issued to several school districts for information regarding teachers who had participated in “sick-outs” during the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions.

Beshear is also the Democratic nominee for governor, opposing incumbent Governor Matt Bevin.  The judge liked a post in which a state representative said that he was “honored to sign a pledge card to vote for the Beshear/Coleman ticket in November.”  The Labor Secretary filed a motion to disqualify the judge based on that “like.”  The judge denied the motion; the Labor Secretary then invoked a Kentucky procedure that allows the Chief Justice to immediately review and decide whether grounds exist to appoint a different judge for the case.

The Chief Justice agreed with the Labor Secretary’s argument that “Governor Bevin is effectively a party to the lawsuit because ‘the Attorney General brought this lawsuit against Governor Bevin’s administration, and the Attorney General frequently promotes the lawsuit as part of his campaign for governor.’”

Noting several reprimands for similar conduct by the Judicial Conduct Commission, the Chief Justice concluded that the judge’s “liking” of a Facebook post supporting Beshear’s campaign was a per se violation of the code of judicial conduct.  The Chief Justice also stated that the fact that the judge “also ‘liked’ posts supportive of Governor Bevin’s campaign or of other Democratic and Republican candidates does not . . . right the wrong.  In fact, those ‘likes’ constitute additional violations . . . .”  The Chief Justice acknowledged that the Labor Secretary did not allege and there was nothing in the record to indicate that the judge had explicitly endorsed Beshear’s campaign or that he was biased against Governor Bevin or the Labor Secretary.  The Chief Justice also expressed his conviction that the judge “would preside over this case, as he has in so many other cases, in a completely fair, neutral, and unbiased manner.”  But the order emphasized that the standard for disqualification does not require actual proof of bias but simply circumstances that raise reasonable questions about the judge’s impartiality.  Thus, the Chief Justice held:  Given that the judge’s “‘like’ may reasonably be perceived as a public endorsement of a candidate’s campaign, that the candidate is a party in this case, and that this case involves a central issue in that candidate’s campaign, this is one such circumstance.”

The Chief Justice added:

This case should serve as a cautionary tale to all Kentucky judges who use social media.  As the Judicial Ethics Commission wisely admonished in its 2010 opinion, these services are “fraught with peril” for judges and should be used with extreme caution.  While judges are not ethically prohibited from using social media, their use is subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct in the same manner as other extrajudicial activities.  Judges should review their social-media presence to ensure it does not violate the Code of Judicial Conduct and should act prudently when “liking” pages, posts, or tweets or otherwise interacting with other users on social media.

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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 on the Center for Judicial Ethics web-site.

More than a Facebook fail

Based on the findings and recommendation of the Judicial Conduct Commission, the Utah Supreme Court suspended a judge for 6 months without pay for (1) losing his temper with the clerk of court and using his authority to seek her removal from the premises; (2) “seemingly shirty and politically charged comments to a defendant in his courtroom;” and (3) a Facebook post that was critical of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.  In re Kwan (Utah Supreme Court May 22, 2019).

(1) In February 2017, after learning that an administrative staff member had been promoted without his involvement, the judge confronted the Clerk of Court in a manner that multiple witnesses described as “angry,” “screaming,” and “intense.”  A short time later, the judge threatened in a notice for disciplinary action to put the Clerk of Court on unpaid suspension pending termination and directed that she be escorted from the premises in an e-mail that recipients understood to be a judicial order, in part, because it included a signature block.

The Court recognized that even “attempting his or her best efforts,” a judge might “fail to handle an administrative matter with the highest degree of patience and courtesy.”  However, it concluded, the judge had acted “well outside the bounds of any acceptable range of behavior,” noting that following his “outburst” he had inappropriately attempted “to use the judicial office to impose severe consequences” on a court employee.

(2) In January 2017, in an exchange during a hearing with a defendant who had failed to pay his fines, the judge “appeared to demean the defendant and included political commentary regarding President Trump’s immigration and tax policies:”

Judge:              So, what happened with your fine payments?
Defendant:      So, I, just, live paycheck to paycheck . . . .
Judge:              Ok.  So, when you set up the pay plan you were hoping you would have the money and it didn’t pan out that way?
Defendant:      And I did not call, but I plan on when I get my taxes to just pay off all my court fines, because I cannot end up in jail again for not complying.
Judge:  You do realize that we have a new president, and you think we are getting any money back?
Defendant:      I hope.
Judge:              You hope?
Defendant:      I pray and I cross my fingers.
Judge:              Ok.  Prayer might be the answer.  ‘Cause, he just signed an order to start building the wall and he has no money to do that, and so if you think you are going to get taxes back this year, uh — yeah, maybe, maybe not.  But don’t worry[,] there is a tax cut for the wealthy so if you make over $500,000 you’re getting a tax cut.  You’re right[] there[,] right?  Pretty close?  All[]right, so do you have a plan?  Other than just get the tax cut and pay it off?

Noting the judge’s contention that he “intended to be funny, not rude,” the Court stated:  “It is an immutable and universal rule that judges are not as funny as they think they are.  If someone laughs at a judge’s joke, there is a decent chance that the laughter was dictated by the courtroom’s power dynamic and not by a genuine belief that the joke was funny.”  The Court noted that the judge had been publicly reprimanded in 2005 for telling an attorney that he seemed to be raising the “Clinton defense,” a reference to President Clinton.  In re Kwan, Order of Reprimand (Utah Supreme Court November 1, 2005).  Thus, the Court concluded, the judge’s “in-court political comment regarding President Donald Trump” continued a pattern of behavior and demonstrated “an ongoing failure to exercise appropriate judgment and restraint when making statements during judicial proceedings.”

(3) During 2016, the judge repeatedly posted comments and shared articles on his Facebook and LinkedIn accounts regarding then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.  On September 26, the night of the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the judge wrote:

Contradictory:  person who got rich by not paying people for their work but complains about NATO not paying their fair share.
Food for thought:  If a person tries to show their ties to a community by talking about their investments and properties and not about the people of the community, it speaks to that person’s priorities.
Quick question:  Is the fact that the IRS has audited you almost every year when your peers hardly ever or never have been, something to be proud of?  What does that say . . . about your business practices?
Wish she said:  “Donald, I’m used to having a man interrupt and dismiss me when I speak because egotistical men hav[e] been trying to do that to me for my entire career.”

The judge conceded that his comment about the IRS audits violated the code of judicial conduct and was not protected constitutional speech because it expressly criticized a specific political candidate.  The Court explained that, although the judge’s “comments addressed a candidate for national political office, and Judge Kwan may not decide national-scale issues as a justice court judge, those issues may still bear, or appear to bear, in some respects on questions that arise in his courtroom.  Or cause those who disagree with Judge Kwan’s politics to believe that they will not receive a fair shake when they appear before him.”  The Court emphasized that its primary concern was not that the judge “voiced his views on a range of political issues via his criticisms of Donald Trump” but that he “implicitly used the esteem associated with his judicial office as a platform from which to criticize a candidate for elected office.”  It explained:

Fulfillment of judicial duties does not come without personal sacrifice of some opportunities and privileges available to the public at large.  And as a person the public entrusts to decide issues with utmost fairness, independence, and impartiality, a judge must at times set aside the power of his or her voice—which becomes inextricably tied to his or her position—as a tool to publicly influence the results of a local, regional, or national election.

The Court noted that the judge’s Facebook account was “private,” but that the judge did not argue that that privacy setting exempted his comments from regulation, explaining that the judge had not disclosed how many friends had access to his Facebook account, did not suggest “that those individuals would not share his comments or postings more widely,” and acknowledged that “his posts [might] be reposted by his friends.’”

Following the presidential election, the judge continued to post comments and articles regarding Trump and also posted comments or shared articles on other topics including immigration, gun violence, and voter participation.  The Court gave “illustrative examples—not a comprehensive recitation” of the posts, noting his posts regarding Trump “were laden with blunt, and sometimes indelicate, criticism.”

On November 8, the judge wrote a lengthy post on voter participation that opened: “Dear Generation X and Millennial Voters, So many people have tried to convince you of the importance of your participation in this year’s election. . . .  Let me join in the effort . . . by giving you the cold, hard truth:  You have to vote to stop your elders from screwing up your future!  What kind of future do you want?  Want help with your student loan debt?  Want affordable tuition?  Affordable health insurance? . . .  Grab a friend and Go Vote.”

3 days after the presidential election, the judge remarked, “Think I’ll go to the shelter to adopt a cat before the President-Elect grabs them all . . . .”

The day President Trump was inaugurated, the judge commented, “Welcome to governing.  Will you dig your heels in and spend the next four years undermining our country’s reputation and standing in the world? . . .  Will you continue to demonstrate your inability to govern and political incompetence?”

On February 13, the judge posted, “Welcome to the beginning of the fascist takeover.  [W]e need to . . . be diligent in questioning Congressional Republicans if they are going to be the American Reichstag and refuse to stand up for the Constitution, refuse to uphold their oath of office and enable the tyrants to consolidate their power.”

The judge argued that the Commission could not “regulate speech addressing social or political issues or ‘public officials in general,’” but only speech that “expressly criticizes or praises” a specific political candidate.  The judge acknowledged that his post-election statements about Trump were “direct, critical, and strident” but contended that they were not about a candidate for office and were “synonymous” with his “views on issues such as racism, civil rights, the plight of refugees, and constitutional limits on the executive branch.’”

The Court held that it could not resolve the “interesting and important constitutional issues” raised by the judge because he had not challenged the code restrictions on speech in a declaratory judgment action before violating them as required by the “contemporaneous constitutional objection requirement” it has imposed in previous cases.  The Court has held that “a judge may not raise a constitutional challenge for the first time in a judicial disciplinary proceeding” but must comply with “the law as it exists at the time” while challenging it in other proceedings.  Otherwise, the Court explained, judges may “appear to consider themselves above the law,” undermining public confidence in the judicial system.

The Court also concluded that accepting the judge’s constitutional contentions would not change the outcome of the case because the judge’s post referring to IRS audits and the judge’s other misconduct “amply justify” a 6-month suspension without pay.  The Court gave “significant weight” to the 2 letters of education the judge had received from the Commission, the 2 public reprimands he had received from the Court, and the 2 advisory opinions he had asked for and received that “offered substantial guidance” to him on inappropriate political commentary.  The Court held that a suspension of less than 6 months “would fail to adequately address the degree to which Judge Kwan has varied from our judicial code, the repeat nature of Judge Kwan’s conduct, his disregard of the specific guidance and former discipline he has received, and the importance of the principles his conduct has trampled,” noting “every time a judicial officer engages in misconduct, he or she spends the goodwill of the judiciary as a whole” and “readily” concluding that the judge “has been spending our goodwill.”  Noting that “previous endeavors to help Judge Kwan correct this behavior have not been successful,” the Court “regretfully conclude[d] that a sanction less severe than suspension without pay will suffer the same fate as our prior attempts.”

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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 on the Center for Judicial Ethics web-site.


Interesting posts

Several judicial discipline cases warn judges to resist the temptation to create social media posts that may interest or entertain the readers but do not reflect well on the dignity of the judiciary.

For example, one judge began a post with:  “In the category of, You can’t make this stuff up!”  The post purported to be a verbatim account of his conversation with the tenant in an eviction proceeding involving drugs found in an apartment.  (Instead of names, the judge referred to the individuals by their role in the case – “landlord,” “tenant,” etc.)

A maintenance man testified to finding powder that tested positive for cocaine under the bathroom rug in the tenant’s apartment.  The tenant testified that the heroin was not his — cocaine, not heroin, was his drug of choice and he keeps all of his drugs in a safe.  When asked how the heroin got into his apartment, the tenant said, “I don’t know.  Maybe one of the hookers I had in my apartment left it.”

The post ended:  “Needless to say, the Court ruled in favor of the landlord.”

When one of his Facebook friends asked if this was a true story, the judge posted:  “Yes.  It goes without staying but the tenant wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.”

Publicly reprimanding the judge, the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct found that the post and reply “mocked the intelligence level of the tenant,” creating an appearance of impropriety and diminishing public confidence in the judiciary.  Urie, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct June 12, 2018).  See also Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 2016-9 (judge should not tweet about a defendants using profanity or throwing urine and feces at a judge because “a reasonable person may perceive these posts to be needlessly offensive, or as making light of behavior by litigants who may have mental health problems”).

In publicly reprimanding a judge for comments posted on his Facebook page, the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards found that the judge had “put his personal interest in creating interesting posts ahead of his duty to maintain the appearance of impartiality.”  In the Matter of Bearse, Public reprimand (Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards November 20, 2015).

n one post, the judge had stated:  “[L]isten to this and conclude that lawyers have more fun than people.”  He then described a medical school graduate’s petition to expunge her disorderly conduct conviction based on her assault on her boyfriend after she found him having sex with her best friend.  He explained that he had granted the petition even though it was filed about 2 years early under the statute and he would probably be reversed if the prosecution appealed.”  Comments on the post included:  “I am always heartened by the application of common sense.  An excellent decision, in my opinion,” and “You’re back in the saddle again Judge.”

Those favorable comments, the Board stated, created the appearance that the judge’s decisions “could be influenced by the desire to make a good impression of himself on his Facebook page.”

The West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission publicly admonished a judge for posting on his Facebook page a photo that showed him arraigning a woman on felony charges of forging her dying mother’s will to inherit more than $1,000,000.  Public Admonishment of Hall (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission October 31, 2017).  The photo came from a story run by a television station about the case.  The caption underneath the photo read, “Police:  Woman Exploits over One Million Dollars from Dying Mom,” and the news logo appeared to the right of the heading.

The post elicited comments from members of the public, including “[d]isgusting,” “[h]ang ‘em high Brent,” “[h]opefully you set a high bond,” and “I didn’t think anything could be lower than rescinding DACA.  I was wrong.”  Some comments expressed support for the judge’s handling of the arraignment, such as “[g]o Brent” and “[g]et ‘em Brent,” and “[t]hat face!  Good one.”

The judge argued that, because the photo did not include “any comment, opinion, or statement,” it was not a comment about a pending case.  The Commission strongly disagreed.

There is an old maxim that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  The saying is deigned to convey the concept that a single image often expresses an intricate idea better than any written description.  By placing that still photo on his Facebook page, Respondent expressed to his Facebook friends the woman’s perceived guilt in a louder voice and in a more certain tone then if he had actually written the words himself.

The Commission emphasized that the judge’s post was “designed to elicit responses from his friends because that’s what Facebook is meant to be – an alternate public means of communication.”  The Commission noted that the largely negative comments were “no surprise” and the judge’s “failure to remove them constituted a tacit endorsement,” concluding he had acted in a way that was “contrary to the neutral and detached demeanor of all judges but . . . undoubtedly popular with his friends.”

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.

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 ( 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



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.