The Tennessee Judicial Ethics Committee recently released an advisory opinion regarding judges and proper social media etiquette, something that legal experts have seen land judges across the country in controversy recently. In an attempt to avoid some of the same problems in Tennessee, the Committee is attempting to convey how important it is for judges to choose their online “friends” wisely.
Just last year a judge a Philadelphia was under scrutiny after prosecutors discovered he was friends with a man whose drunk driving case was before him. The judge threw out several key parts of his case. In North Carolina, another judge was reprimanded after he became friends with an attorney who was representing one of the parties in a divorce case in his court. The judge went so far apparently as to discuss details of the case with the attorney, including a possible affair by one of the parties.
To date no such situations have been reported in Tennessee, but many believe that with the ubiquitous nature of social media a conflict will eventually arise. Others think that an unscrupulous lawyer with time on their hands could do some digging in an attempt to get a judge thrown off of a case even under innocent circumstances.
The advisory opinion says the biggest impact will be on new judges who may have to ‘de-friend’ some lawyers or parties they were already friends with who might pose problems down the road. Anyone who may appear in their court one day cannot be seen as having special sway with the judge, according to the opinion.
The impetus behind the advisory opinion was a question from a lawyer who as a new judge wondered if he had to de-friend his existing lawyer friends. The answer, according to the Ethics Committee, is no–though it could potentially be problematic. The opinion says that judges should of course avoid sharing any sensitive information or discussing cases, but using social media as a means of keeping in touch with friends and sharing family updates shouldn’t be a problem.
Tennessee joins the ranks of many other states that have addressed the issue by not an outright ban of social media for judges. There are some states, for example Florida, that have banned judges from being e-friends with lawyers who appear in their courtrooms.
The Ethics Committee concludes that while judges are allowed to participate in social media, they should use caution when doing so. Any judge must also expect that their use of social media will be scrutinized by others and thus “must be constantly aware of ethical implications as they participate in social media and whether disclosure must be made.”