As I wrote a few years ago, judges in Florida may not be Facebook friends with any lawyer who may appear before the judge. (Opinion 2009-20, Nov. 17, 2009). Last month, the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee made clear that this prohibition extends beyond Facebook. In Opinion Number 2012-12, issued on May 9, 2012, the Committee opined that a judge may not be “connected” to lawyers who may appear before him on any social-networking site-including LinkedIn. The inquiring judge had posited that Facebook and LinkedIn have distinctly different purposes-one for personal use and one for professional use. Therefore, the inquiring judge asked, shouldn’t there be different standards for judges’ use of the two sites?
The Committee did not agree. Instead, it held that the relevant inquiry is not about the website or social-networking site or its purpose. Instead, the Committee determined that the process of selecting friends or connections “and the fact that the names of those friends or connections are then communicated – often, but not always, selectively to others – that violates Canon 2B, because by doing so the judge conveys or permits others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.”
Massachusetts judges also may not be “friends” online with any attorney who may appear before the judge. (Op. No. 2011-6). So can judges in California, although that State’s opinion seems more qualified. (Formal Op. No. 66) (2011). Ethics opinions from Kentucky and Ohio reached a similarly qualified “yes.” (Op. JE-119) (Jan. 2010); (Op. 2010-7) (Dec. 2010).
Other states’ judicial-ethics committees have come out differently than the Florida committee. For example, Judges in South Carolina are not prohibited from being Facebook friends with law enforcement officers and employees who work for the judge, provided there is no discussion of anything related to the judge’s official duties. (Op. No. 17-2009) (Oct. 2009). Judges in New York also are permitted to participate in social-networking, provided the judge otherwise complies with the rules of ethics. (Op. 08-176) (Jan. 2009).
But, in a Pennsylvania decision rendered earlier this year, a court determined that a judge had abused his discretion by not recusing himself from a case in which he was Facebook friends with the defendant, a local politician.
And then there’s the example of the New York criminal judge who was transferred after some of the lawyers who appeared before him complained that the judge had sent them Facebook friend requests.