Friending the Judge – The Ethics of Judges, Social Media, and Facebook Friendships

Would you be surprised if you received a Facebook “friend” request from a judge, or if you learned that an opposing counsel was Facebook “friends” with the judge? Should judges enjoy the benefits of social media, or is it more important to avoid any relationship that might compromise the appearance of impartiality or erode public confidence in the courts? Judges, lawyers, and judicial ethics authorities throughout the country have wrestled with these questions. This article not only provides an overview of how Texas and other states have addressed these issues, but also an examination of the types of online miscues that judges have made.

With 72% of the adult American population maintaining at least one social networking profile, it is hardly surprising that judges are not immune to the lure of social media. In 2010, the Conference of Court Public Information Officers conducted a survey entitled “New Media and the Courts: The Current Status and a Look at the Future.” Forty percent of the responding judges said that they used one or more social networking sites; not surprisingly, judges who were elected were far more likely to use social media (66.7%) than their counterparts who were appointed (8.8%).1 And when it came to the use of social networking in their professional lives, these judges were clearly conflicted, with half the respondents either disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement “Judges can use social media profile sites, such as Facebook, in their professional lives without compromising professional conduct codes of ethics.”2

1. Examples of Judicial Misconduct

Request Update

Such a concern may very well be validated when one considers some of the following ethical missteps that judges have made online:

  • In March 2014, Arkansas Circuit Judge Mike Maggio admitted to making racist and other offensive remarks under the screen name “geauxjudge,” including leaking details of a sealed adoption proceeding involving Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron. The LSU grad dropped out of a race for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals in the wake of the controversy, and Arkansas’ Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission launched an investigation.3
  • Ennis, Texas Municipal Judge Lee Johnson ignited a firestorm of controversy by posting on his Facebook page about Heisman-winning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel getting a speeding ticket in his town in January 2013. The gloating by the Baylor grad prompted a second, apologetic Facebook post as well as a reprimand by the Ennis City Manager.4
  • Georgia Superior Court Chief Justice Ernest “Bucky” Woods retired from his bench in 2009 after revelations surfaced of his relationship with a young woman who appeared in his court on drug charges. Judge Woods contacted her on Facebook after seeing her in his court, and this led to loaning her money, visiting her apartment, and advising her on how to proceed in court appearances before him. Judge Woods also used a photo from the woman’s Facebook page as a basis for issuing a probation revocation against another drug defendant.5
  • In perhaps the most infamous, oft-cited case of a judge misbehaving on social media, Judge B. Carlton Terry received a public reprimand in April 2009 from the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission for activities related to a Facebook “friendship” between himself and an attorney appearing before him. Just before a child custody and support proceeding that lasted from September 9 to September 12, 2008, Judge Terry and attorney Charles Schieck (attorney for the ex-husband) became Facebook “friends” following an in-chambers meeting. A series of Facebook messages were then exchanged between the two while the while the proceeding went on, with Schieck commenting on everything from trial strategy (“How do I prove a negative?”) to how long the proceeding would last, to just plain sucking up (“I have a wise Judge”). Just before he ruled, Judge Terry disclosed the Facebook exchanges to the ex-wife’s attorney (he also later disclosed having done some independent online research of the ex-wife’s website). Motions to vacate the ruling, to disqualify Judge Terry, and for a new trial quickly followed. In reprimanding him, the Commission commented that Judge Terry’s conduct demonstrated a disregard for “the principles embodied in the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct” and was “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”6