Friending a Judge

How would you feel if you were a party to a lawsuit and the judge was a Facebook friend of the other side’s attorney? Would you think the judge could be fair? What if it were a criminal case? Would that make a difference?

That is one of the questions being certified to the Supreme Court of Florida in the case Domville v. State of Florida, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D150a. Specifically, where the presiding judge in a criminal case has accepted the prosecutor assigned to the case as a Facebook “friend,” would a reasonably prudent person fear that he could not get a fair and impartial trial, so that the defendant’s motion for disqualification should be granted?

The Fourth District Court of Appeal determined that the underlying judge should have disqualified himself from the case, but has certified the question to the Supreme Court as a question of great public importance. It was noted by the judges who agreed with the majority opinion that “a person who accepts the responsibility of being a judge must also accept the limitations on personal freedom.” “Judges do not have the unfettered social freedom of teenagers.”

The reality is that most judges are friends with lawyers. They are lawyers themselves. They attend social events with lawyers all the time, but that is not always known by parties involved in litigation. So when does a friendship cross the line where the judge should recuse him/herself from a particular case?

Most judges know the answer to that question and will recuse him/herself when they feel that their relationship with an attorney would not allow them to be fair and impartial to the other side. Judges recuse themselves from cases all the time for all sorts of reasons, including because of a relationship with a particular lawyer.

The only difference is with the advent of social media, you now have access to information that you may not have otherwise been privy to in the past. Nonetheless, Florida does have an ethical rule prohibiting judges from being Facebook friends with lawyers who may appear before them. Until the Supreme Court of Florida agrees to hear the question, however, the safest course of action for a judge is to not accept a friend request on Facebook.