Judge Doesn’t Have to Give up Case Over Facebook Friendship
Florida Judge Beatrice Butchko will not have to autmoatically give up a case because of a Facebook friendship she has with an attorney, the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled in a close 4-3 decision. The Herssein Law Group said Butchko should not hear the case because she is Facebook friends with lawyer Israel Reyes, a former judicial colleague, and the friendship could influence Butchko’s decision-making.
In June of this year, Maury Udell, an attorney for the Herssein Law Group, said he wasn’t saying “judges can’t be on Facebook.” But, he said, “Just don’t be Facebook friends with lawyers who appear in front you…It goes back to the word I came up (with) in the beginning (of the arguments) – which is optics. It just doesn’t look right.”
In the court’s decision, it ruled a digital connection between people is not the same as being friends in the real life, however. Facebook friendships are more casual and not as long-lasting, and the connection “may be as fleeting as the flick of a delete button,” the court said. Thus, the existence of a social media friendship between the judge and an attorney does not reasonably convey a close friendship.
“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,” the opinion stated, adding the committee’s concern about Facebook friendships “is unwarranted.”
Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has advised judges not to friend attorneys who appear before them, in general. Florida remains the most restrictive state with regards to social media standards and allowing or not allowing connections between parties. Eleven states in total have issued guidance on such friendships.
The majority decision affirmed a decision last year by Florida’s Third District Court of Appeals. Butchko had refused to give up her position, forcing the Herssein Law Group to take the issue to the appeals court. The August 23, 2017 decision allowed Judge Butchko to remain on the case, which involved a suit for nonpayment of legal fees filed by the Herssein Law Group against a former client, the United Services Automobile Association. After losing that round, the group went to the state’s Supreme Court.
In her dissent, Democratic Justice Barbara Pariente argued that the judge should have to give up the case. She said, “The bottom line is that because of their indeterminate nature and the real possibility of impropriety, social media friendships between judges and lawyers who appear in the judge’s courtroom should not be permitted. Under this rule, the opposing litigant would not be required to delve into how close the Facebook friendship may be, the judge avoids any appearance of impropriety, and Florida’s courts are spared from any unnecessary questions regarding the integrity of our judiciary.” She added she, personally, would adopt a strict rule requiring judges to recuse themselves in such situations, quoting from an opinion in another Facebook recusal case involving a similar conflict of interest and stating, “Judges do not have the unfettered social freedom of teenagers.”