Here in Pennsylvania a Magisterial District Justice is under fire for having too many Facebook friends. The local Harrisburg paper has an article explaining how the Judge, Magisterial District Justice Placey, turned out to have a Facebook friend who was a defendant before his court. Judge Placey responded that he accepts all friend requests that come his way on Facebook and that he doesn’t really use the account very much.
Before I go into an analysis of the situation, I would like to say that I have had the pleasure to work with Judge Placey on CLE seminars, and I know him to be a man of high ethical standards. I do not believe for a moment that his Honor would do anything to interfere with his ability to be an impartial jurist.
I imagine Judge Placey simply wants to be available to those in his community; it is difficult to criticize such a desire. But I fear that some of the issue here is a failure to appreciate how social media works. While Judge Placey might not use his Facebook account very much, it is possible that the defendant does. The defendant might well have discussed his case, information Judge Placey could have seen had he chosen to look.
It is most likely that because the Judge has so many Facebook friends that he did not screen, he simply was not focused on the fact that the defendant happened to be a Facebook friend. Friending everyone who asks could easily result in the Judge being friends with a defendant, juror, witness or counsel who is slated to appear before him. And as a result, the judge could well be exposed to information posted by those individuals that he should not see.
Not many states have offered guidelines on who judges may friend. In Ohio judges are allowed to friend attorneys, in Florida they are not. My advice has always been, and remains, that judges should not be friends on Facebook with anyone who might appear before them in court.
I have been asked, what is the difference, why does it matter if a Judge is friends on Facebook when a judge may be friends in real life? First, if the Judge had been real life friends with the defendant, he no doubt would have recused himself. As far as attorneys go, people on Facebook post all sorts of things with no thought as to who is reading. When communicating with a judge at dinner, the lawyer is going to be keenly aware what he may or may not discuss. But that same lawyer may not remember the judge is his friend on Facebook and may inadvertently say something that the judge should not read or that could be taken as ex parte communication.
Part of being a judge is making certain that there are no appearances of impropriety. As a result, in my opinion, judges should be extremely careful, even more careful than the average person, about who they friend online.
Edited to update: Judge Placey turned out to know the father of the defendant, but not the defendant himself. The Judge recused himself.