Florida judges may have fewer lawyer “friends”

Social media is making its presence felt in many aspects of life. In Florida, that includes the state judiciary.

The Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee last month issued an opinion on the use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in the context of the judiciary and judicial elections. Among other things, a judge may not add lawyers who may appear before the judge as “friends” on a social networking site or permit such lawyers to add the judge as their “friend.”

It centers around a common phrase in the world of ethics: the appearance of impropriety. The concern is the impression “friending” might create. The ethics committee felt that if a judge lists a lawyer who might appear before them as social media “friend,” it may create the impression “that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.” Although the committee realized there likely is no correlation between being a “friend” and having special influence, it said the issue wasn’t whether the lawyer actually could influence the judge. Rather, the key was whether such an identification “conveys the impression” the lawyer has such influence. It concluded that “such identification in a public forum of a lawyer who may appear before the judge does convey this impression and therefore is not permitted.”

The Committee pointed out that its opinion does not apply to listing non-lawyers as “friends” or to listing lawyers who don’t appear before the judge, “either because they do not practice in the judge’s area or court or because the judge has listed them on the judge’s recusal list so that their cases are not assigned to the judge.” Yet even with that distinction, being a judge can be a lonely job — even in cyberspace.

While judges cannot isolate themselves entirely from the real world and cannot be expected to avoid all friendships outside of their judicial responsibilities, some restrictions upon a judge’s conduct are inherent in the office.

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion 2009-20

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