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.

 

Another Facebook fail

The West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission publicly admonished a judge for posting on his Facebook page a photo showing him conducting an initial appearance.  Public Admonishment of Hall (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission October 31, 2017).

On September 5, 2017, the judge arraigned a woman on felony financial exploitation of the elderly and related charges for allegedly forging her dying mother’s will to receive more than $1,000,000.  WSAZ-TV filmed the arraignment and ran a story in which the judge prominently appeared.

The judge posted on his Facebook page a still photo of the video from the TV station’s story.  The photo showed him seated in court conducting the appearance with the caption, “Police:  Woman Exploits over One Million Dollars from Dying Mom.”

The judge’s post elicited several negative posts 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.”  The comments also included statements of 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 Commission “strongly” disagreed with the judge’s argument that he had not violated the code of judicial conduct because he posted the photo “without any comment, opinion, or statement.”  The admonishment explained:

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 also found that the post was “designed to elicit responses from his friends because that’s what Facebook is meant to be – an alternate public means of communication,” noting “[t]he fact that the friends’ comments were largely negative is no surprise, and Respondent’s failure to remove them constituted a tacit endorsement of the same.”  The Commission emphasized that the judge’s action “was certainly contrary to the neutral and detached demeanor of all judges but was undoubtedly popular with his friends.”

The concern that a judge may be posting on social media with an eye more to engaging an audience than promoting confidence in the judiciary was also expressed in a 2015 public reprimand from Minnesota.  In the Matter of Bearse, Public reprimand (Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards November 20, 2015).  One of the judge’s Facebook posts described a medical school graduate’s petition to expunge her conviction for disorderly conduct because she could not be licensed with the conviction on her record.  The judge commented, “listen to this and conclude that lawyers have more fun than people.”  He then related that the conviction was based on the woman’s assault on her boyfriend whom she had found having sex with her best friend.  He stated that he granted the petition although “[s]he is about two years early based on our new statute” and if the prosecution appealed, “which they will not, I think I will be reversed.”

Comments on the judge’s 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.”  The Board found that the favorable comments could create the appearance that the judge’s “decisions on cases could be influenced by the desire to make a good impression of himself on his Facebook page” and noted its concern that the judge was “putting his personal communication preferences above his judicial responsibilities.”

The summer and fall issues of the Judicial Conduct Reporter were devoted to the issue of judicial ethics and social media.

Without more

Denying a petition for a writ of prohibition, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal recently held that a trial court judge’s Facebook “friendship” with a lawyer representing someone involved in litigation did not require the judge’s disqualification from the case.  Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association (Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal August 23, 2017).

The plaintiff, a law firm, sued a former corporate client for breach of contract and fraud, accused one of the defendant’s executives of witness tampering, and indicated that the executive was a potential witness and potential defendant.  An ex-circuit court judge was hired to represent the executive.  The plaintiff filed a motion to disqualify the trial judge because the ex-judge was listed as a “friend” on the trial judge’s personal Facebook page.  The test for determining the legal sufficiency of a motion for disqualification in Florida is whether “the facts alleged (which must be taken as true) would prompt a reasonably prudent person to fear that he could not get a fair and impartial trial.”

The 3rd District relied on a decision by the Florida 5th District Court of Appeal holding that requiring disqualification in cases involving Facebook friends “does not reflect the true nature of a Facebook friendship and casts a large net in an effort to catch a minnow.”  Chace v. Loisel, 170 So. 3d 802 (Florida 5th District Court of Appeal 2014).  Describing the word “friend” on Facebook as a “term of art,” the 5th District explained that a Facebook friend “could more aptly” be described as an “acquaintance and, sometimes, virtual stranger.”  The court noted that requiring disqualification in cases involving an acquaintance “is unworkable and unnecessary,” “[p]articularly in smaller counties, where everyone in the legal community knows each other, . . .”  (However, in the case before it, the 5th District held that a judge who sent a Facebook friend request to the wife in a dissolution of marriage case had engaged in an ex parte communication and was required to recuse herself.)

The 3rd District agreed that a “Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship,” noting “some people have thousands of Facebook ‘friends,’” “Facebook members often cannot recall every person they have accepted as ‘friends’ or who have accepted them as ‘friends,’” and “many Facebook ‘friends’ are selected based upon Facebook’s datamining technology rather than personal interactions.”  The 3rd District explained:

To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook “friends” are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty.  The point is, however, many are not.  A random name drawn from a list of Facebook “friends” probably belongs to casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a “friend of a friend;” or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook “friends” rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.

The 3rd District “respectfully acknowledge[d]” its “conflict with the opinion of our sister court” in Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Florida 4th District Court of Appeal 2012).  In Domville, the 4th  District Court of Appeal had held that recusal was required when a judge was a Facebook “friend” with the prosecutor based on a judicial ethics opinion that advised that judges were prohibited from being “friends” on Facebook with lawyers who appear before them.   Florida Advisory Opinion 2009-20.

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion,” the 3rd District stated, “electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate.  Acceptance as a Facebook ‘friend’ may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation.  Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook ‘friends’ varies greatly.”  The 3rd District held that, “[b]ecause a ‘friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, . . . the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook ‘friend.’”  The court did not discuss whether there was something “more” than the “mere” Facebook friendship that might require the judge’s disqualification in that case.

The decisions from the 3rd and 5th District Courts of Appeal in Florida are consistent with other state appellate caselaw holding that a social media connection does not require a judge’s disqualification, although only the Florida cases involve relationships with attorneys.  See State v. Forguson, 2014 WL 631246 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2014) (a trial judge is not disqualified despite his status as “Facebook friend” with the state’s confidential informant who was a witness at trial); State v. Madden, 2014 WL 931031 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2014) (a judge’s Facebook friendship with one of the witnesses did not require his disqualification from a criminal case); Youkers v. State, 400 S.W.3d 200 (5th District Texas Court of Appeals 2013) (a trial judge did not lack impartiality based on a Facebook friendship and communications with the father of the defendant’s girlfriend).  So far, no state supreme court has had to decide the issue.

In July, rejecting a challenge to a settlement, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit also rejected the defendants’ argument that the district court judge should have recused himself because of an appearance of bias created by activity on his alleged Twitter account.  U.S. v. Sierra Pacific Industries, 862 F.3d 1157 (U.S 9th Circuit 2017).  The civil action by the U.S. was brought in the Eastern District of California against private forestry operators and individuals to recover damages to 2 national forests caused by a fire.

The court made no findings about whether the judge actually controlled the Twitter account at issue, which was an undeveloped issue in the district court.  (According to the blog “Above the Law,” the Twitter account, “@nostalgist1,” was controlled by Judge William Shubb who was presiding in the case.  The account was public at the time of the relevant tweets, but “[a]fter the government sent Judge Shubb a letter informing him that his Twitter usage was being raised on appeal, Judge Shubb changed his account from ‘public’ to ‘protected,’ meaning that only approved followers can see his tweets.”)

The Twitter account allegedly controlled by the judge followed the Twitter account of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California.  The day that the district judge denied the defendants’ motion for relief from the settlement, the U.S. Attorney posted 8 tweets about the case on its Twitter account.  That evening, the judge’s alleged Twitter account tweeted a link to “an allegedly erroneous news article” about his decision.  (It was allegedly erroneous because the settlement did not provide that the defendants were “liable” and the title for the article was, “Sierra Pacific still liable for Moonlight Fire damages.”)

The 9th Circuit held that, under the plain error standard, the allegations did not warrant retroactive recusal even if the judge was the owner of the account.  The Court rejected the defendants’ argument that the judge’s “following” of the U.S. Attorney’s office Twitter account created an appearance of bias.  Noting “news organizations, celebrities, and even high-up government officials use Twitter as an official means of communication, with the message intended for wide audiences,” the Court held that, “[w]ithout more, the fact that an account holder ‘follows’ another Twitter user does not evidence a personal relationship and certainly not one that, without more, would require recusal.”

The Court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that disqualification was required because the U.S. Attorney’s tweets about the case were an improper ex parte communication and the judge’s tweet linking to the newspaper article was an inappropriate public comment.  The Court concluded that the U.S. Attorney’s tweets were not ex parte communications because they were not “specifically directed” to the judge, but were “released to the general public, intended for wide distribution to an anonymous public audience.”  Finally, the Court held that a single tweet consisting “only of the title and link to a publicly available news article about the case in a local newspaper, without any further commentary” was not a public comment on the merits of the matter and did not require recusal.

Although concluding that retroactive recusal was not warranted, the 9th Circuit noted that the “case is a cautionary tale about the possible pitfalls of judges engaging in social media activity relating to pending cases” and reiterated “the importance of maintaining the appearance of propriety both on and off the bench.”

As discussed in the spring issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter, judicial ethics committees also advise that disqualification is not necessarily required when an attorney with whom a judge has an on-line connection appears in a case, but that that connection is one factor a judge should consider in deciding whether her impartiality might reasonably be questioned.  For example, the Arizona committee stated that there is no “per se disqualification requirement in cases where a litigant or lawyer is a ‘friend’ or has a similar status with a judge through social or electronic networks” but that there may be “facts and circumstances” related to the social media relationship that might disqualify the judge.  Arizona Advisory Opinion 2014-1.  See also Maryland Opinion Request 2012-7; Missouri Advisory Opinion 186 (2015); New Mexico Advisory Opinion Concerning Social Media (2016); New York Advisory Opinion 2013-39; Ohio Advisory Opinion 2010-7; Utah Informal Advisory Opinion 2012-1.

Even the Massachusetts committee, which has advised judges not to “friend” attorneys who may appear before them, stated that disqualification may not be required if “[d]espite a judge’s best efforts, . . . unexpectedly, a lawyer whom the judge knows to be a Facebook friend appears before the judge.”  Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2016-1.  But see California Judges’ Association Advisory Opinion 66 (2010) (if a judge approved a connection to a lawyer on a social media site because he believed it was highly unlikely the attorney would ever appear before him, the judge should disqualify himself if that lawyer does appear).  Cf., In the Matter Concerning Ferguson, Public admonishment (California Commission on Judicial Performance May 31, 2017) (public admonishment of judge who was Facebook friends with attorneys who were appearing regularly before him without disclosing the relationship, in addition to other misconduct).

Because disqualification is not automatically required, a judge must consider whether an on-line connection — alone or in combination with other factors — raises a reasonable question about the judge’s impartiality whenever a person with whom a judge has a social media connection appears in a case.  The relevant factors for making that determination include:

  • The frequency of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the individual;
  • The substance of the judge’s social media contacts and communications with the individual;
  • The scope of the social media friendship;
  • The nature of the 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);
  • Whether the social media connection was established before the case came before the judge; and
  • Whether the judge and the friend have frequent, personal contacts in real life, not just on-line.

(Some of those factors identified by California Judges’ Association Advisory Opinion 66 (2010) as relevant to the determination whether a judge should friend an attorney and seem just as pertinent to the question of disqualification.)

Thus, if the judge’s social media page primarily has posts about personal activities, his connections are mainly family and personal friends, the judge is very selective when adding to his “friend” list, the judge and the attorney comment on each other’s posts, and the judge and the “friend” and their families socialize in real life, the judge’s impartiality is more likely to be reasonably questioned and disqualification is more likely to be required when that “friend” appears in a case.  In contrast, if the page is focused more on court business and professional activities, the judge has more “friends” on the page, those friends are primarily professional acquaintances, the judge allows anyone to follow the page, and the judge and the “friend” only interact in court or at bar meetings, the judge’s impartiality is not likely to be questioned, and disqualification is not likely to be required.

 

Legal advice on social media

Rule 3.10 provides that a full-time judge “shall not practice law.”  Thus, although users may ask for legal advice via social media when they learn another user is a judge, the judge cannot respond.  Accord Connecticut Informal Opinion 2013-6; Kentucky Advisory Opinion JE-119 (2010); New York Advisory Opinion 2008-176; Ohio Advisory Opinion 2010-7; ABA Formal Opinion 462 (2013).  See also In re Bass, Public Reprimand (Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission March 18, 2013) (sanction of judge for private Facebook chat advising a woman who contacted him about how her brother should get his DUI matter into his court where he would “handle it,” in addition to other misconduct).

Further, advisory committees have broadly interpreted the prohibition to apply, not just to answering specific questions from other users, but to general social media posts that could be construed as legal advice.

For example, the West Virginia advisory committee stated that a judge could not post videos in which she answers questions about family law on her campaign web-site because she would be engaging in the practice of law and “potentially” in ex parte communications.  West Virginia Advisory Opinion (February 6, 2016).  In addition, although the committee stated that a judicial candidate (to whom the code applied) could post videos about general procedures and statutes on child support calculations on her Facebook page, it emphasized she must ensure “the explanations do not cross the line into legal advice or discussions concerning pending or impending matters.”  The committee also warned that such videos were likely to generate follow-up questions that a judicial candidate could not answer.

Similarly, the Utah committee advised that a judge may post about legal topics on social media — unless the comments could be considered legal advice.  Utah Informal Advisory Opinion 2012-1.  The Massachusetts committee also stated that, although a judge may post “purely educational” tweets advising “trial lawyers on trial practice (e.g., preparing clients to testify, delivering closing arguments, conducting cross-examination),” the judge must “offer only practice tips and not legal advice.”  Massachusetts Letter Opinion 2016-1.  The Connecticut advisory committee approved a judge’s participation as an expert on a non-profit, non-partisan organization’s electronic “answer board” that provides journalists with information on legal and constitutional topics, but warned the judge to keep her answers factual and instructive without providing legal advice.  Connecticut Advisory Opinion 2011-14.

Based on findings of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, the Arkansas Supreme Court removed a judge from office for explaining how to beat a DWI charge on a public on-line fan-site, in addition to other misconduct.  Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission v. Maggio, 440 S.W.3d 333 (Arkansas 2014).  Under the subject “to blow or not to blow,” the judge had posted:

You have the right to remain silent . . . so don’t say a word.  Don’t open your mouth “smell of intoxicants” that is the probable cause for FST.  Just hand the LEO your license, insurance and registration.  Everything they need to write you the ticket (reason for the stop) is on those papers.

Never say a word.  If ordered out of car.  Get out and lean against car.  Don’t move.  Yes very possible you will be cuffed and stuffed.  But at that time all they have is the violation for the stop.

Refuse the BAC test.  Yes another ticket but better than the alternative.  In the end the less evidence the best.

That being said 99% of folks on the side of the road all think hey I can “talk my way out.”

Of course, the single best advice is don’t drink and driver ever.  LEO don’t play.

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This post will be part of the summer issue of the Judicial Conduct Report, which is the second and final part of an article analyzing the advisory opinions and discipline decisions on social media and judicial ethics.  Part 1, the spring issue, described the advice judicial ethics advisory committees have given judges regarding social media in general and the rules related to judicial duties in particular.  Part 2, to be published in August, will cover off-bench conduct:  abuse of the prestige of office, disclosing non-public information, providing legal advice, charitable activities, including fund-raising, commenting on issues, political activity, and campaign conduct.  You can sign up to receive notice when a new issue is available.