Tag Archives: Judicial ethics and discipline

ABA formal ethics opinion provides guidance for recusal of judge because of a personal relationship

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss ABA Formal Opinion 488, which provides guidance on a judge’s obligation to recuse because of a social or close personal relationship with a lawyer or party.  ABA Formal Opinion 488 is here:  https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_488.pdf

According to the opinion, which was released on September 5, 2019, a judge is not required to automatically recuse or be disqualified if a lawyer or party in a matter before the judge is an acquaintance or friend; however, recusal or disqualification is necessary when the judge is in a close personal relationship with a lawyer or party in a matter.

Formal Opinion 488 interprets the Model Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11, which requires judges to identify situations where their impartiality might reasonably be questioned—an age-old and fluid determination, beyond the specific provisions in Rule 2.11(A)(1)-(6).  The opinion states “that relationships vary widely, potentially change over time, and are unique to the people involved.” As such, the opinion trifurcates judge’s social interactions and relationships into (1) acquaintanceships; (2) friendships; and (3) close personal relationships.

Rule 2.11(A)(1) addresses the standard of when “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” In addition, Rule 2.11(A)(2) specifies situations where “the judge knows that the judge, the judge’s spouse or domestic partner, or a person within the third degree of relationship to either of them, or the spouse or domestic partner of such a person is:

(a) a party to the proceeding, or an officer, director, general partner, managing member, or trustee of a party;

(b) acting as a lawyer in the proceeding;

(c) a person who has more than a de minimis interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding; or

(d) likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.”

The opinion notes that a judge must recuse or be disqualified when the judge has or pursues a romantic relationship with a lawyer or party in a matter; however, other “close personal relationships” (such as amicably divorced individuals who maintain joint custody), require that the judge follow Rule 2.11(C), which permits disclosure and waiver of the recusal.

Under Rule 2.11(C), a judge subject to disqualification because of a friendship or close personal relationship may disclose on the record the basis of the potential disqualification and ask the parties and their lawyers to consider, outside the presence of the judge and court personnel, whether to waive the disqualification.  If the parties and lawyers agree after the disclosure (and without participation by the judge or court personnel), that the judge should not be disqualified, the judge may participate in the proceeding. The stipulation must be incorporated into the record of the proceeding.

The opinion states that a close personal relationship is covered by Rule 2.11(A)(2) and requires disqualification, but acquaintances do not.  Further, whether friendships should result in disclosure and recusal depends on the specific facts. The opinion does not address social media (such as Facebook “friendships”) and states that interaction on social media does not itself indicate the type of relationship participants have with one another either generally or for purposes of the opinion.

Bottom line:  This opinion provides guidelines for judges (and lawyers) on a judge’s obligation to recuse (or be subject to disqualification) because of a social or close personal relationship with a  lawyer or party.

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.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Please note:  My office has moved and the new office address is 2999 Alt. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683.  All other contact information remains the same.

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Florida Supreme Court opinion finds that social media friendship with lawyer alone is not sufficient to disqualify judge

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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

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Herssein law firm files emergency motion with Florida Supreme Court to quash 3rd DCA opinion and order claiming violation of stay in Facebook disqualification matter

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert update which will discuss the recent (December 13, 2017) Motion to Quash filed by the Herssein law firm in the Florida Supreme Court proceeding challenging a Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge’s denial of a motion to disqualify a lawyer who was a former judge and “friend” of the judge on Facebook.  The 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.: 2015-015825-CA-43 (Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC17-1848).  The Herssein law firm’s Motion to Quash is here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2017/1848/2017-1848_motion_115391_motion2dother20substantive.pdf.

The law firm filed an emergency motion on December 13, 2017 asking the Florida Supreme Court to quash a December 13, 2017 3rd DCA opinion quashing two discovery orders and an order granting fees to USAA, claiming that the opinion and order violated the Supreme Court’s Stay Order dated December 7, 2017.

As I previously blogged, the Herssein law firm moved to disqualify the judge from a contract dispute against their client, the United States Automobile Association (USAA) in which a lawyer who represented a non-party USAA employee in the matter 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), which 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).

Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko found that she was not required to recuse herself from the case and the Herssein firm asked 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 a December 7, 2017 Order, the Court issued a stay of the lower court proceedings and, in an Order dated December 11, 2017, accepted jurisdiction and provided a briefing schedule.

Bottom line:  In a strange turn of events, the law firm has filed a motion claiming that the 3rd DCA rendered an opinion and order which violate the Florida Supreme Court’s stay of the lower court proceedings and asking the Supreme Court to quash the opinion and order.

Stay tuned…and 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

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

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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

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Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge charged with misconduct for allegedly accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from firm with case pending before him

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the February 1, 2016 Notice of Formal Charges filed by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) against Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge John Lakin for allegedly requesting and accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from a law firm which had a case pending before him.  The JQC charges are here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/182/2016-182_notice_77834.pdf

According to the JQC Notice of Formal Charges and charges, in June 2015, the judge was presiding over the personal injury case of Wittke v. Walmart June, wherein the plaintiff accused Walmart of negligence, which caused her to fall and injure herself.  After a trial, Walmart was found by the jury not to be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.  The day after the verdict was rendered, the judge asked his judicial assistant to contact the law firm which defended the plaintiff to request tickets for that night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.

The judge received five tickets valued at about $100 each, and he indicated that he only used two of the tickets.  The judge was from the Boston area.  According to the JQC Notice:  “The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base”.

According to the JQC Notice, the plaintiff’s law firm filed a motion 6 days later to set aside the verdict and for a new trial.  The motion was heard on August 21, 2015; however, the judge did not rule at that time.  On August 25, 2015, the judge requested and received five more tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from the law firm and, on August 26, 2015, the judge issued an order setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.  The Order stated that  “(n)o reasonable jury could have returned a verdict finding that the Defendant was not at least partially liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial.”   The Notice further states:  “(y)our extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart. You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”

According to the JQC Notice, the Chief Circuit Judge for the 12th Judicial District told the judge his conduct was inappropriate and told him to report it to the JQC.  The judge then disclosed that he had received tickets from the firm both to the JQC and to Walmart attorneys; however, according to the Notice, “(y)our subsequent disclosure to the parties on October 9, 2015, stated only that, ‘I previously received Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from the…law firm.’  Your disclosure did not include the dates that you accepted the tickets, nor did you even explain that you had accepted the tickets while the Wittke matter was pending.”  The JQC Notice also states that the judge received baseball tickets from two other law firms which have appeared before him.

The JQC rules prohibit judges from conducting activities outside of the courtroom which cast a reasonable doubt on his or her ability to be impartial, undermine the judge’s independence, or demean the judicial office and from “accepting gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge.”

The JQC rules provide that the judge may file an answer to the Notice and charges within 20 days. The JQC will hold hearings and make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which will issue a formal order/opinion and impose discipline if the judge is found guilty.

Bottom line: This is a somewhat extraordinary and surprising case.  Perhaps the judge was unaware of the rules prohibiting accepting gifts from lawyers, specifically when the case is pending before him; however, under the most unfavorable argument, the judge could be alleged to have accepted the gift and issued favorable ruling as a direct result of the law firm’s gift.  Both lawyers and judges must be very aware of these clear prohibitions and also that the consequences of a violation of the rules, whether intentional or unintentional, will most likely be very severe.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Florida Supreme Court issues order to show cause and immediately suspends judge who cursed at and fought with public defender

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the October 6, 2015 Florida Supreme Court order which rejected the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) recommendation of a 120 day suspension for a judge who cursed at and fought with a public defender and ordered the judge to “show cause why removal from office is not the appropriate sanction in this case” by October 26, 2015.  The order also immediately suspended the judge without pay pending the disposition of the proceedings.  The JQC disciplinary case is Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Re: John C Murphy, Case No. SC-1582 (Fla. SC).  The Court’s October 6, 2015 order to show cause is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_10-06-2015_Order_to_Show_Cause.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

The judicial disciplinary charges resulted from a June 2, 2014 hearing in which the judge became upset with assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock after the lawyer refused to waive speedy trial for a client.  The judge told the lawyer: “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Stop pissing me off. Just sit down. I’ll take care of this. I don’t need your help. Sit down.”  The lawyer stated, in response: “I’m the public defender. I have a right to be here, and I have a right to stand and represent my clients.”

According to the JQC’s May 19, 2015 Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations, the judge “loudly commanded” the attorney to sit down and told him, “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”  The public defender accepted the judge’s challenge and he and the judge left the bench and met in the hall.  To that point, the exchange was captured on courtroom video and audio recordings; however, the hall confrontation was not recorded on video.

The judge was audio recorded making “an even more profane remark” as he confronted the lawyer.  Sounds of an altercation could be heard, followed by the lawyer asking for the judge to be arrested for grabbing and punching him; however, the report concluded that there was no clear and convincing evidence that the judge struck the lawyer and noted that a woman who took the lawyer’s photo the following day testified that she saw no evidence of injury.  The report also noted that the lawyer had a reputation at the courthouse for being rude and unprofessional and that he was “defiant, defensive, evasive and at times testified inconsistent with what he had earlier reported” at the JQC hearing.  The report concluded that the lawyer was not a credible witness.

The JQC Findings state that the judge was well-liked among other judges and that he was endorsed by lawyers who said he was a good judge and expressed surprise at the situation. The judge also took responsibility for his actions and “expressed profound remorse”; however, the incident created “a remarkable national embarrassment” for Florida’s judiciary and its citizens.  The report recommended a three-month suspension, a $50,000 fine, costs of the proceedings, and a public reprimand.  The JQC Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations are online here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_05-19-2015_Findings_Conclusions_Recommendations.pdf

After the commission filed its Findings, the Supreme Court issued an order to show cause on May 21, 2015 as to why the recommendation should not be granted.  On June 25, 2015, the judge filed a response through counsel stating that he would not contest the recommendations; however, he called the sanctions harsh and possibly unprecedented and pointed out the burden his suspension would place on his colleagues.  The response stated that the judge immediately took responsibility for his actions, apologized for his mistake, and did not publicly respond to the lawyer’s allegedly false claims that he struck the lawyer.  The response referred to letters from lawyers and the public stating that he is “a good man and an excellent judge,” as opposed to the lawyer, who “left a trail of judges offended by his behavior.”

The judge’s response further states: “The sanctions recommended by the JQC indeed are harsh. Judge Murphy accepts them while recognizing how difficult it would be emotionally — being off the bench for four months — and financially. As for public scrutiny and ridicule, he knows it is of his own making, and he is shamed. Judge Murphy will not quarrel with the JQC recommendations.  Dozens of endorsements through this process identify Judge Murphy as a good man and a good and fair jurist. This one moment in time should not be allowed to define his life and career.”  The judge’s response is here:   http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_06-25-2015_Response_Order_Show_Cause.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

The JQC filed a reply on June 30, 2015 which states: “again, as he did at trial, (the judge) expends quite a bit of effort to deflect responsibility for the situation upon attorney Andrew Weinstock, minimizing the impact of his improper language and the aggressive physical confrontation in the hallway outside the courtroom directed at Mr. Weinstock. Compounding his misconduct he proceeded to handle the cases of seven separate clients of Mr. Weinstock after the confrontation in the hallway, including persuading five of them to waive speedy trial, the very act that Mr. Weinstock had steadfastly refused to do. Finally, he makes much of the fact that the Hearing Panel did not find that blows were actually struck, which is irrelevant under these circumstances.”

The JQC reply concludes: “A truly contrite Judge Murphy would avoid heaping blame on others, would accept without reservation the discipline proposed by the hearing panel in this matter, and would be grateful that removal was not recommended”.  “Instead, what we see is a grudging acceptance and a continued, major effort to deflect his own responsibility onto someone else for his egregious wrong.” The JQC reply is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/14/14-1582/Filed_06-30-2015_JQC_Reply_Response_Show_Cause_Order.pdf#search=John C. Murphy

Bottom line: This incident was, of course, widely publicized in the media and the judge was both criticized and ridiculed (as well as the judiciary as a whole).  The JQC Findings recommended a 4 month suspension; however, the JQC reply was extremely critical of the judge’s response and stated that it was part of “ a continued, major effort to deflect his own responsibility onto someone else for his egregious wrong.”  I suspect that the Supreme Court was not happy with this incident in the first instance and this “deflection of responsibility” may have been a major factor (if not the main factor) in the Court’s order immediately suspending the judge and ordering him to show cause why he should not be removed from judicial office.  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.

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

 

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Filed under Florida judge ethics, Florida Judicial Canons, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Judge misconduct cursing and fight with lawyer, Judicial ethics

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

 

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