Shortly before Election Day 2018, I had a temporary injunction hearing where the judge made an interesting statement. After the close of evidence, the judge said he would take the injunction under advisement. Then he added that he had a campaign fundraiser that evening and did not want to see any of us there. Because “that just ain’t right,” he said.

I appreciated the judge doing this. I don’t think he was concerned that someone showing up at his fundraiser would sway him one way or the other, but he understood how it would look. I think he wanted to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

The funny thing is, it would have been perfectly legal and ethical for us lawyers to show up and hand checks to the judge—at least under Texas rules and the cases applying them. Texas courts have repeatedly held that  a lawyer’s campaign contributions to a judge do not require recusal. They brush aside the obvious appearance of impropriety for pragmatic reasons: if campaign contributions were disqualifying, Texas judges would have to recuse themselves in half their cases.

The judge’s statement stayed on my mind after the election, when headlines focused on  the great State of Florida.

I love Florida for two reasons. First, Disney World. Second, the great headlines.

You know the kind of headlines I’m talking about:

Florida Man Breaks Into Jail to Hang Out With His Friends 

Florida Woman Calls 911 Three Times Over McDonald’s Chicken McNugget Shortage

Florida Clerk Smashes Jar of Ranch Dressing Onto Darth Vader Armed Robber 

Florida Strip Club Offers Free Flu Shots

Florida Supreme Court Rules That Facebook Friendship Does Not Disqualify Judge

Which of these do you think are real?

Ok, it’s a trick question. The answer is “all of the above.”

“Friends of an indeterminate nature”

The headline about a judge’s Facebook friendship is the most recent. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court held in a 4-3 decision that the mere fact that a judge is Facebook “friends” with a lawyer in a case before the court does not require disqualification of the judge.[1]

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because I wrote about the earlier Florida Court of Appeals decision in Social Media in Litigation Part 3: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

The underlying case was a civil suit by a law firm against a former client. After filing the lawsuit, the law firm hired a lawyer listed as a “friend” on the trial court judge’s personal Facebook page. It appears this was the only evidence regarding the relationship between the judge and the lawyer.

To disqualify a judge under Florida law, the movant must have a “well-grounded fear” that he will not receive a fair hearing. The question is whether the facts alleged “would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”[2]

Note this has a subjective and an objective component. The subjective question is whether the movant fears the judge won’t be fair—not whether the judge will actually be unfair. The objective question is whether that fear is reasonable.

After laying out this standard, the Florida Supreme Court did what courts usually do when confronted with a new issue involving social media: analogize to pre-social media conduct. So the court started out by asking whether a “traditional” friendship between a lawyer and judge requires disqualification.

The mere existence of a friendship does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the friendship, the court said. “It follows that the mere existence of a friendship between a judge an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship.” Thus, “[n]o reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are friends of an indeterminate nature.”[3]

That is why, under Florida law, “an allegation of mere friendship between a judge and a litigant or attorney appearing before the judge, standing alone, does not constitute a legally sufficient basis for disqualification.”[4]

The Florida Supreme Court then applied these principles to a Facebook friendship. You can already see where this is going. If a friendship IRL does not require disqualification, why should a Facebook friendship require it?

The court made the obvious observation that a Facebook “friendship” is not “as a categorical matter” the equivalent of a “traditional” friendship. That means a Facebook friendship “does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional ‘friendship.’”[5]

It’s common knowledge that Facebook friendship varies in degree from “greatest intimacy” to “virtual stranger” to “complete stranger,” the court said. “It is therefore undeniable that the mere existence of a Facebook ‘friendship,’ in and of itself, does not inherently reveal the degree or intensity of the relationship between the Facebook ‘friends.’”[6]

In short, “the mere fact that a Facebook ‘friendship’ exists provides no significant information about the nature of any relationship between the Facebook ‘friends.’”

The court concluded:

Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook “friendship” between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are Facebook “friends” with a relationship of an indeterminate nature.[7]

The court added that its holding was in line with the majority of state ethics committees that have considered whether a Facebook friendship between a judge and a lawyer creates an appearance of impropriety.

Of course, we must not read too much into this. The issue was narrow: whether a Facebook friendship standing alone was sufficient to warrant disqualification.

A relationship “fraught with risk”

Nevertheless, three dissenting justices in the Florida case would have required disqualification even on this narrow basis. Justice Pariente wrote in dissent that “a judge’s involvement with social media is fraught with risk that could undermine confidence in the judge’s ability to be a neutral arbiter.” He would adopt a strict rule requiring judges to recuse themselves whenever an attorney with whom they are Facebook “friends” appears before them.[8]

The dissent did not question the standard for disqualification cited by the majority, nor did it dispute the case law dealing with actual friendship. Rather, the dissent questioned the majority’s premise that Facebook friendship is analogous to traditional friendship. “[E]quating friendships in the real world with friendships in cyberspace is a false equivalency,” the dissent argued.[9]

Wasn’t that the majority’s point? A Facebook friendship is not the equivalent of a traditional friendship, the majority said, so if a traditional friendship doesn’t automatically require disqualification, a Facebook friendship shouldn’t either.

But the dissenting opinion touches on three things  that make a Facebook friendship potentially more problematic.

First, a Facebook friendship is public. Unlike a traditional friendship, which the parties may not even know about, a Facebook friendship is typically there for everyone to see. And it’s the appearance of impropriety—and the resulting loss of confidence in the integrity of the judicial system—that matters most.

Second, unlike some other social media platforms, Facebook allows the user to select and reject friends. “[T]he selection and rejection function is what causes the potential for the appearance of impropriety, after the judge has established the social networking profile that affords the judge the ability to accept or reject ‘friends.’”[10]

Third, the dissent seems worried that social media is just too risky for judges. “An individual judge’s social media, whether it is Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or any other site, is fraught with concerns for the average litigant.”[11]

On this point at least one member of the majority agreed. Justice Labarga agreed with the majority that disqualification was not required but wrote a concurring opinion to “strongly urge” judges not to participate in Facebook. “[J]udges who elect to maintain Facebook ‘friendships’ with attorneys who have any potential to appear before them are, quite simply, inviting problems.” That means “the safest course of action is to not participate in Facebook at all.”[12]

That is obviously the “safest” thing for judges to do with social media. But is it the best thing? Could there be some benefits to judges engaging with lawyers and others on social media? Let me know what you think on my LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook.

Unless you’re a judge; that wouldn’t look right. Instead maybe I’ll see you at your next fundraiser.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Servs. Auto. Ass’n, No. SC17-1848, 2018 WL 5994243, at *7 (Fla. Nov. 15, 2018).

[2] Id. at *3 (citing some cases).

[3] Id. at *4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at *6.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at *7.

[8] Id. at * 10 (Pariente, J., dissenting).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at *11.

[11] Id. at *12.

[12] Id. at *9 (Labarga, J., dissenting).

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