You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Social media has provided an unparalleled level of communication for people across the world, including many individuals who otherwise would never have “met” in real life. Aficionados of the growing number of social media outlets hail from all walks of life, from plumbers to teachers to lawyers and judges. While no one is likely to raise a red flag when a plumber and a customer with a leaky toilet become “friends” on Facebook or other social media platform, the same cannot be said for attorneys and jurists, who must adhere to strict codes of professional conduct that protect against both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee responded to this perceived impropriety threat in 2009 by barring lawyers and judges from becoming friends on Facebook. The advisory committee’s opinion (which was viewed with much skepticism by lawyers and legal ethicists alike) reasoned that allowing judges and attorneys to be Facebook friends “reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”

Now, a Dallas appeals court has issued a decision covering a similar issue after denying an appeal filed by a man who claimed his assault conviction should be dismissed because the judge who presided over his trial also happened to be a Facebook friend of the victim’s father. The ruling from 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas held that Facebook friendship “does not show the degree or intensity of a judge's relationship with a person . . . One cannot say, based on this designation alone, whether the judge and the 'friend' have met; are acquaintances that have met only once; are former business acquaintances; or have some deeper, more meaningful relationship . . . Further context is required.”

People who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the topic assume that judges should live a cloistered existence, cut off from the real world and anything that might compromise their objectivity. In reality, however, the last thing anyone should want is a judge who can’t identify with how the rest of us live. A judge who understands social media is a better suited to hear a case involving social media, just as it might be difficult to try an auto accident case before a judge who has never seen an automobile.

This is especially important in states such as Texas, where judges are elected. Judicial elections require judges to campaign and persuade voters, which means that they are required to have contact with the public to explain what they do (those seeking re-election) or what they plan to do (those who have not held a judicial post). To limit them from using the same effective campaign tools that all other elected officials use regularly would be pointless, and probably unconstitutional.

 

Posted: 8/26/2013 8:39:02 AM by TCLE Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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