Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (11/15/18) Florida Supreme Court opinion which found that social media friendship with a lawyer, standing alone, is not sufficient to disqualify a judge. The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. v. United Services Automobile Association, No. SC17-1848 (Fla. November 15, 2018) and the opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2018/sc17-1848.pdf
In the split opinion, the Florida Supreme Court resolved a conflict between Florida Districts Courts of Appeal as to whether a judge must be disqualified if he or she is a “Facebook friend” with a lawyer appearing before the judge. The Third and Fifth Districts had held that social media friendship alone was not a sufficient basis to disqualify a judge.
The Fourth District, however, held that recusal is required when a judge is a Facebook “friend” with a criminal prosecutor. The opinion discussed the previously held principle of Florida law that a “traditional friendship” between a judge and an attorney, without more, is not sufficient to disqualify a judge and extended that principle to social media friendships, finding that “an allegation that a trial judge is a Facebook ‘friend’ with an attorney appearing before the judge, standing alone, does not constitute a legally sufficient basis for disqualification.” The opinion did caution that “particular friendship relationships may present such circumstances requiring disqualification.”
According to the opinion, the states of Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Utah have also found that a social media friendship between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge standing alone, is not sufficient to disqualify the judge; however, a “minority” of states have found that social media friendships between judges and attorneys create an “appearance of impropriety” and may be prohibited. The opinion lists the states of California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma as taking this position, along with Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinion 2009-20 (which may now be withdrawn or revised).
The opinion concluded:
In some circumstances, the relationship between a judge and a litigant, lawyer, or other person involved in a case will be a basis for disqualification of the judge. Particular friendship relationships may present such circumstances requiring disqualification. But our case law clearly establishes that not every relationship characterized as a friendship provides a basis for disqualification. And there is no reason that Facebook “friendships”—which regularly involve strangers—should be singled out and subjected to a per se rule of disqualification.
Bottom line: This Florida Supreme Court opinion (which was a split 4-3 decision) concludes that Florida judges are not subject to disqualification merely for being a “friend” of a lawyer on social media (specifically Facebook); however, there may be additional factual circumstances which may require disqualification.
Be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert 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