Social media has now invaded the court system in the most unusual way. Recently, a Broward County Circuit Court judge was thrown off a case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. Florida's Attorney General objected to the process by claiming the judge was tried and convicted without due process. Now our local appeals court and the Florida Supreme Court are being asked to clarify the issue and give guidance as to whether or not lawyers practicing in front of judges can be Facebook friends.
This brings up an interesting issue. Lawyers and judges often times cut their legal teeth together either in the State Attorney’s Office, Public Defenders Office or private law firms before evolving their practices into seasoned attorneys or judges. I have known many judges on the bench and have socialized with them frequently. It does not impair their ability to be impartial in the cases where I have come before them. I have only one judge friend who has disqualified himself from hearing cases that I have been retained on as the trial attorney. This is because I asked this judge to be the godfather of one of my children. That relationship was deemed by both of us to be too intimate as to give off the appearance of impropriety. This is the standard by which relationships between lawyers and judges is governed, “the appearance of impropriety." Whether or not a judge can be influenced is not the relevant factor, it is the appearance of whether or not a judge can be influenced is what matters. Perception is greater than reality.
With the advent of social media, people who would not regularly communicate are now able to stay in touch with one another with very little effort. The Internet raises the level of intimacy in conversation. As a personal injury attorney, I warn every one of my clients to avoid posting things that may adversely affect their case in any form of social media. It never fails that one or more clients at any given time will not heed my warning and post something ridiculous on their social media for the world to see.
Now, it seems to have expanded to the relationship between lawyers and judges. I have a few Facebook friends who are judges. I can assure you that nothing improper has ever been communicated between the two of us regarding any legal matter that I may be working on or the Judge is presiding over. The Facebook relationship is purely social and has nothing to do with work. We are professionals and do not cross the line.
However, a litigant on the other side of the case that I may be prosecuting may feel differently. I have to look at it from their point of view as well. I may not feel comfortable with the judge who is a Facebook friend with the attorney on the other side of one of my cases. Therefore, I do not disagree with those who advocate the requirement that judges and attorneys not engage in any social media aspects or conversations. We can communicate the old fashioned way, face to face, and that’s not so bad after all.