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Florida lawyers, judges barred from ‘unethical’ social networking?

Monday, 14 December 2009 — by

According to a recent legal ethics ruling in Florida, lawyers and judges are barred from “friending” on Facebook, Twitter et al. Since when did ethics take on the role of censoring personal relationships?

Judges must not only be beyond reproach, but they must also be seen to be so. We expect few allowances, and in this case, ethics is a rigid rule that they are measured by. And just like everyone else, judges have friends. But how do they maintain this irreproachable air in the context of a social network like Facebook or Twitter?

From the point of view of the public (our stand point), if we were to see that a judge had a friend that was a lawyer, does that alter our view of them? For me personally, it doesn’t change a thing. However, according to a ruling by Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee: “judges and lawyers can no longer ‘friend’ each other on Facebook” .. Twitter et al.

But this presents a problem. Judges must not only be beyond reproach, right? We all agree on that. But they must also be seen to be so, right? Well that’s clearly where things have become problematic, within the context of social networking — if a judge has a lawyer as a friend, from the point of view of Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, that impartiality has been impacted.

My take on this is actually the opposite — in having access to these relationships, we get to see the visible threads of the various relationships of tthose judges and lawyers.

What we don’t get to see are the telephone numbers or home addresses of those same lawyers on the mobile phones and laptops of the judges they are friends with. Why are they not within the scope of this ethical ruling? It’d be interesting to hear what the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee have to say on such data retention that is clearly indicative of an on-going relationship.

“The committee did conclude that a judge can post comments on another judge’s site and that during judicial elections, a judge’s campaign can have ‘fans’ that include lawyers.”

What we’re seeing is the long-standing light of legal ethics being cast on the very amorphous outline of social networking, creating unusual shadows, into which all kinds of dilemmas can hide. In making this ruling, Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee aren’t dealing with the core issue, they’re simply forcing their judges and lawyers to be less visible in their relationships with one another.

Would it not make more sense to ask those lawyers and judges to expand upon the nature of their relationships? After all, this being legal ethics, we would expect more scrutiny and not less, which is effectively what the JEAC is enforcing.

Essentially, the JEAC is sending out the message that they don’t believe Florida judges are fit to preside the impartiality of their own relationships with lawyers and other judges. And not wanting to be too judgmental, I think the JEAC have need to make a better case for their…

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Comment and be known

David → Friday, 25 December 2009 @ 19:13 BDT

Good points well made, but actually I see it the other way. On the surface it would seem logical that the ruling should apply to public and private friendships. However, just think of a private friendship you have – would you conduct it in precisely that same manner if there was an audience watching, listening?

So I think perhaps the ruling means –

“Don’t put yourselves under the spotlight. Don’t conduct these kind of relationships because the public spotlight and pressure will undoubtedly color your exchanges and potentially could lead you down paths you would not go if you acted in private.

Do not do it because you may be in danger of being led into situations you might regret – situations you would not have to worry about if you had no impartiality to protect.”

Of course it could mean “Don’t do it in public or you might get caught being a fool.” but that is just one interpretation.

It must be tough being a judge if you can’t cut loose and act the fool now and again.

David → Wednesday, 6 January 2010 @ 20:30 BDT

Care to add a reply to this?

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 6 January 2010 @ 20:58 BDT

Hi David, I’ve been snowed under (no pun intended, honest) with work and I’ve not had time to check any comments in months.

I see what you mean, but what you’re talking about is effectively a charter of rules for them and rules for us, and secrecy is never a good thing.

When all is said and done, they’re judges and lawyers, people who have lived their lives under one degree of scrutiny or another for many years, and always will do, should they pursue their careers to the fullest, and become judges.

If they have to add another subtle layer of disclaimers to their relationships, why should they be any different to anyone else in a profession that requires disclosures?

David → Wednesday, 6 January 2010 @ 21:08 BDT

Hi Wayne,
I am glad for you that you have been beset by work.

Well I won’t drag this out, but the fact is that there IS a charter of rules for them and one for us. They are officers of the court; we are not. We can sit on juries; they cannot. They can send people to prison, award money to plaintiffs; we cannot.

They must be seen to be doing justice as well as doing it; we don’t have that burden.



Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 6 January 2010 @ 21:16 BDT

Yes, I am aware of the remit of their responsibilities and the scope of their powers, but that’s all somewhat adjacent to the context of this discussion. Or, if you want to fold that area into this discussion, then what I’m proposing would be an extension of their responsibilities, to ensure visibility in the transaction of their relationships.

Either way, the social web has placed these people under renewed scrutiny, and in the eyes of the public if not the law, the issues i raise will be hardly any different to those seen by either the man on the street, or the woman sat in front of her computer.

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