To Friend, or Not to Friend: That is the (Judge’s) Question

On May 28, 2013, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics issued an opinion stating “that the mere status of being a ‘Facebook friend,’ without more, is an insufficient basis to require recusal.” (Emphasis in original). The sole act of friending an individual on Facebook does not create an appearance of impropriety, nor does it allow the questioning of a judge’s impartiality.

The unknown justice inquired if recusal is necessary in a criminal matter in which he or she is Facebook friends with the parents or guardians of certain minors allegedly affected by the defendant’s conduct. The justice indicated that the parents are mere acquaintances and that he or she can be fair and impartial.

The Committee cited previous opinions finding that there is nothing inherently inappropriate about a judge making use of a social network. Because interpersonal relationships are unique and fact-dependent, judges must ultimately determine the nature of their relationships.

Various judicial advisory committees have weighed in on judges’ use of social media, with each reaching slightly different results.

In 2011, the Oklahoma Judicial Ethics Advisory Panel issued one of the most restrictive opinions, categorically prohibiting social media “friendships” between judges and court staff, law enforcement officers, social workers, attorneys, and others who may appear in the judge’s court.

Several months ago, an opinion by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility provided judges with a great deal of latitude in their online personas. While judges should disclose information believed to be reasonably relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, the mere fact than an online relationship exists is not automatically grounds for recusal. For example, a judge might disclose a social media connection with a party, lawyer, or witness, but state “that the judge believes the connection has not resulted in a relationshop requiring disqualification.” Judges must take care, however, not to publicly endorse candidates for public office by “liking” online content.

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