If you’re a parent, you’ve probably pulled the old “do as I say, not as I do routine” occasionally. If you’re like me, you’ve probably pulled it a lot. Like when I tell my kids to be good sports, but then they see me at a Reds/Cardinals jeering Yadier Molina at the top of my lungs for the entire game.
But it appears I am not the only one who adheres to this age old philosophy. A Judge in Texas recently ran into trouble for not flowing her own admonition to jurors about social media use during a pending criminal trial.
Michelle Slaughter is a Galveston County judge who presided over a trial last year in which a father was charged with keeping his son in a six-foot by eight-foot wooden box. At the beginning of the trial, Judge Slaughter instructed the jury as follows:
"Again, this is by any means of communication. So no texting, e-mailing, talking person to person or on the phone or on Facebook. Any of that is absolutely forbidden."
This is a common instruction in our wired world. And while we occasionally see stories about jurors texting or tweeting during trials, for the most part, jurors do what they’re told.
But in this case, apparently Judge Slaughter didn’t play by her own rules. On the first day of testimony, the Judge posted this on her Facebook page:
"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 6x8 'box' inside the courtroom!"
This post and others like it got Judge Slaughter brought up on charges before the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. It ordered her to enroll in a four-hour class on the “proper and ethical use of social media by judges.” The panel noted that Judge Slaughter’s post from day one of the trial included “comments [that] went beyond providing an explanation of the procedures of the court and highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced at trial."
In summary, the Panel noted:
Judges have a duty to decide every case fairly and impartially. Judicial independence, impartiality, and integrity must be seen in order for the public to have confidence in the legal system. 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.
Judge Slaughter disagrees, and said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle:
"I will always conduct my proceedings in a fair and impartial way. The Commission's opinion appears to unduly restrict transparency and openness in government and in our judiciary. Everything I posted was publicly available information."
Perhaps. But judges are supposed to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.” And for that reason, it’s probably best, while a trial is pending, that justice not only be blind, but mute as well.