Can You “Friend” Your Judge? Florida’s Highest Court Will Decide

BY BRIAN SCHMELKIN — The Florida Supreme Court is expected to decide an extremely pertinent issue that has arisen as a result of the social networking wave: Can a judge preside over a case in which one of the attorneys is the judge’s Facebook “friend”? In Domville v. Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeals recently held that social media contacts between attorneys and judges can indicate impermissible bias.

Pierre Domville certainly thought that his trial would not be impartial. The prosecutor in Domville’s criminal case was a Facebook “friend” with the judge. Mr. Domville argued that his judge could not be impartial with the prosecutor because Mr. Domville could not be impartial with his Facebook friends.

Mr. Domville will probably win his case. The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has determined that a judge who lists a lawyer as a “friend” on Facebook—or any social networking page—violates Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2B. Canon 2B states that “[a] judge shall not . . . convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.”

Whatever the Florida Supreme Court rules, the ramifications are sure to be felt throughout the state. If the Court rules for Mr. Domville, judges are going to delete Facebook friends–or simply exit social media altogether–en masse. If the Court rules for the State, judges will maintain or even expand their online presence.

This case raises important questions. If judges and lawyers being Facebook friends creates the appearance of impropriety, then what about actually being friends in the real world? The number of people who appear before a judge within each county is limited. Judges often become familiar with attorneys who frequently argue before their court. They go to conventions together, have lunch with one another. Some attorneys even argue before judges for whom they were law clerks. Should every social relationship about which information can be easily obtained be grounds for recusal? Should a judge be completely isolated from social networking? Is that really necessary? Do we not trust judges enough to be able to separate personal relationships from their judicial duties?

The Florida Supreme Court is essentially going to decide how far judges can delve into the modern social networking world. A ruling for Mr. Domville means less access to different world perspectives for judges. A ruling for Florida means more information for judges. One can only hope that the Florida Supreme Court makes a decision with an eye toward the future and that it does what is best for the Florida judicial system.

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