Is it ethically proper for judges to include lawyers who appear before them as "friends" on a social networking website? Presently, the answer is unclear, but more commentators may begin to weigh in on this issue after the Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued its opinion on the subject1.
The Florida opinion answers questions posed by a judge about the use of social networking sites such as Facebook©, MySpace©, and LinkedIn©. A majority of the committee concluded that online "friending" between judges and lawyers who appear before them is inappropriate, conveying the impression that the lawyers are in a special position to influence the judges.
With the issuance of this opinion, one of the first known to address the subject, some of the arguments against and in favor of judges and lawyers who appear before them interacting on social networking websites are becoming apparent:
Arguments against judges and lawyers appearing before them interacting on social networking websites. According to the majority of the Florida ethics commitee, the public may misinterpret lawyer-judge social networking “friendship,” believing the judge will favor the lawyer who may appear before him or her and who is listed on the judge’s social networking page. The majority opined that this type of social networking interaction would violate the Code of Judicial Conduct rule forbidding a judge to "convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge"2. According to the majority, the analysis is not affected by whether the judge is actually impartial toward the lawyer, whether the judge intends for the "friend" listing to convey the wrong impression, or whether the lawyer and judge have a “traditional friendship.” The committee made clear that its opinion does not preclude judges from listing nonlawyers as "friends," judges listing lawyers as "friends" who do not appear before the judges, or allowing a judge's campaign committee to set up a social networking page that permits a lawyer—even one who is appearing before the judge—to be listed as a fan or supporter of the judge.
Arguments in favor of judges and lawyers appearing before them interacting on social networking websites. A minority of the commitee argued that the term "friend" in the social networking community of the Internet is quite different than its traditional meaning. The term “friend” in the social networking context may connote a mere acquaintance. Thus, the minority argued that the public would not frown upon judges connecting as a “friend” with lawyers appearing before them absent some other facts indicating a lawyer maybe in a position to influence a judge. The minority reasoned that unless a judge and a lawyer who are friends discuss a case on the site or engage in other conduct that may call the judge's impartiality into question, the Code of Judicial Conduct is not implicated.
Social networking lawyers and judges should stayed tuned as other ethics committees and commentators consider on this important subject.