Category Archives: Judicial discipline social media ethics

Law firm requests Florida Supreme Court to invoke discretionary jurisdiction challenging judge’s finding that Facebook “friendship” with lawyer is not disqualifying

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (10/17/17) Notice that was filed with the Florida Third District Court of Appeal (and docketed with the Florida Supreme Court) seeking to invoke the discretionary jurisdiction of Florida Supreme Court and challenging the appeals court decision which declined to disqualify a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge who was “friends” with opposing counsel on Facebook.  The 3rd DCA case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. d/b/a Herssein Law Group and Reuven T. Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association, Case No.: 3D17-1421, Lower Tribunal No.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida 3rd DCA) and the Supreme Court case number is SC17-1848.  The Notice and 3rd DCA opinion are here:  https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_notice_82684_e81d.pdf and the SC docket with the filing is here: http://jweb.flcourts.org/pls/docket/ds_docket?p_caseyear=2017&p_casenumber=1848

As I previously blogged on 8/4/17 and 8/24/17, the 3rd DCA upheld the decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko that she was not required to recuse herself from a case in which she was a Facebook” friend” of the lawyer for one of the parties.  The lawyer was also a former judge with whom she worked before he stepped down as a judge.  This decision diverges from a 4th DCA opinion as well as an opinion of the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC).  The 3rd DCA opinion states:

“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach.  An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”

The Herssein law firm then moved to disqualify the judge from presiding over a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which Reyes represents a non-party USAA employee in the matter, who was identified as a potential witness/party.  The law firm argued that the judge could not be impartial in the case and cited JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov.17, 2009).  That opinion states: “Listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.”  In 2012, the 4th DCA relied on the JEAC opinion in disqualifying a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the criminal prosecutor. Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

The 3rd DCA opinion states that Facebook friendships could represent a close relationship that would require disqualification, however, many do not.  The opinion concluded:

“In fairness to the Fourth District’s decision in Domville and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s 2009 opinion, electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate. Acceptance as a Facebook “friend” may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation. Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook “friends” varies greatly. The designation of a person as a “friend” on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance. Because a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook “friend.” On this point we respectfully acknowledge we are in conflict with the opinion of our sister court in Domville.”

The Herssein law firm has filed a Notice with the 3rd DCA (which was received and docketed with the Florida Supreme Court on 10/17/17) asking the Florida Supreme Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the decision under Article V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const., and Rule 9.030(a)(2)(A)(iii) and (iv). In support of the request, the Notice states:  “The decision expressly and directly affects a class of constitutional or state officers; all V judges in Florida, and the decision expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”

Bottom line:  As I said in my previous blogs, the 3rd DCA opinion is contrary to the 2009 JEAC opinion and the 2012 4th  DCA opinion and acknowledges that it is in conflict with that opinion; however, it does provide the rationale that each case should be decided  by examining the facts and the relationship.  This would seem to open up potential confusion and potential disqualification motions that would have to be decided on a case by case basis.  This Notice seeks to have the Florida Supreme Court invoke its discretionary jurisdiction review and reverse the 3rd DCA’s decision.

It is still strongly recommended that judges and lawyers who may appear before them would be well advised not to be “friends” or otherwise connect on social media and professional networking sites or, if they are already connected and a case is assigned, to immediately remove the connection, disclose it to all parties, and (the judge may) possibly provide an option to recuse if the party believes that it could be potentially prejudiced.

Stay tuned…and be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney Ethics, Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Ethics Opinions judges connecting on Facebook and LinkedIn, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judges and lawyer friends on Facebook, Judicial discipline social media ethics, Judicial ethics, Judicial Ethics Facebook and LinkedIn, Lawyer and Judge Friends on Facebook Motion to Disqualify Judge, Lawyer ethics Facebook, Lawyer social media ethics, Lawyers and social media

Texas judge admonished for commenting on pending criminal case on her Facebook page and violating her own order

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished a Texas district court judge for commenting about a controversial trial on her public Facebook page after issuing jury instructions prohibiting same.  The case is In re: Hon. Michelle Slaughter, CJC No. 14-0820-DI & 14-0838-DI  (April 20, 2015).  The link to the opinion is here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2066528-slaughter-admonition-2015.html and here: http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/pdf/actions/FY2015-PUBSANC.pdf

According to the admonition, the judge maintained a public Facebook page which had an image of her in a robe, which she said she set up to fulfill a campaign promise to educate the public about the courts.  The judge presided over a criminal case in which in which a defendant named David Wieseckel was criminally charged with unlawful restraint for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a 6 feet by 8 feet wooden enclosure that was used as the child’s bedroom.

The admonition states:  “On April 26, 2014, Judge Slaughter posted the following comment on her Facebook page: ‘We have a big criminal trial starting Monday! Jury selection Monday and opening statements Tues. morning.’ The following day, in response to the post described above, a person named Jeff Bodie posted the following comment on Judge Slaughter’s Facebook page: ‘One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies is ‘Hang ‘Em High’, jus [sic] sayin [sic] your honor……’”

“In a pre-trial hearing on April 28, 2014, the defendant’s attorney argued a motion in limine to limit the use of the term ‘box’ to describe the wooden enclosure at trial, contending that the term was prejudicial to the defendant and misstated the evidence. Judge Slaughter denied defense counsel’s motion, stating the following: ‘Calling it a wooden enclosure – certainly the press has referred to it as ‘The Boy in the Box’ case, that sort of thing. So I don’t think that there’s going to be prejudice. The jury can make up their own minds as to what they believe that is.’”

“On April 28, 2014, after the jury had been selected, Judge Slaughter provided the jurors with oral instructions regarding their use of social media, including Facebook, and their access to any news stories about the case. The judge expressly admonished the jurors as follows: ‘During the trial of the case, as I mentioned before, you cannot talk to anyone. So make sure that you don’t talk to anyone. Again, this is by any means of communication. So no texting, e-mailing, talking person to person or on the phone or Facebook. Any of that is absolutely forbidden.’”

“In addition the judge provided written instructions to the jury that included the following admonition: ‘Do not make any investigation about the facts of this case. … All evidence must be presented in open court so that each side may question the witnesses and make proper objection. This avoids a trial based upon secret evidence. These rules apply to jurors the same as they apply to the parties and to me (the judge).’”

“On April 29, 2014, after the first day of testimony, Judge Slaughter posted the following comments on her Facebook page: • ‘Opening statements this morning at 9:30 am in the trial called by the press ‘the boy in the box’ case.’” • ‘After we finished Day 1 of the case called the ‘Boy in the Box’ case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6”x8’ ‘box’ inside the courtroom!’ • ‘This is the case currently in the 405th!” [this post included a link to a Reuters article entitled: “Texas father on trial for putting son in a box as punishment.’]”

The judge was later removed from the case after defense counsel filed a motion to recuse her, claiming that she had improperly commented about the trial on her Facebook page and improperly posted the link to the Reuters article.  Following her recusal, the case was transferred to another judge who judge granted a motion for a mistrial.

The judge argued at her discipline hearing that her Facebook posts were to promote “transparency” and to “encourage individuals to come watch the proceedings” and that the posts made it clear that it was the media which referred to the case as the “boy in the box” case. She also said she was “shocked” to see the “Hang ‘Em High” post and removed it from her page months later. She also argued that all of her comments were true and based on publicly available information.

The admonition noted that the judge’s Facebook posts, her recusal, and the subsequent mistrial received widespread negative media attention which criticized her conduct.  The judge had also posted comments on her Facebook page about another criminal trial pending in her court.  The judge removed the Facebook page after the investigation began.

“Despite her contention that the information she provided was public information, Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the Wieseckel case or in other high-profile cases.” “The comments went beyond providing an explanation for the procedures of the court and highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced.”  The admonition requires the judge to obtain four hours of instruction with a mentor in addition to her required judicial education.

According to media reports, the judge stated that she disagreed with the commission’s decision but would appeal.  She also stated: “ None of my statements indicated any probable decision I would make, and none of my statements expressed a bias for or against any particular party. Everything I posted was publicly-available information”.

Bottom line:  This is yet another example of a judge landing in hot water for comments made on social media, this time on Facebook.  Judges (and lawyers) who maintain social media pages and make comments on them must be aware of the consequences of comments which may be inappropriate and which could result in discipline, which occurred in this case.  If the judge appeals, the Texas Supreme Court will issue a final opinion.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

Leave a comment

Filed under joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge discipline Facebook posts, Judicial discipline social media ethics, Judicial ethics