Judging Facebook relationships

Should jurists hear cases involving their 'friends'?

What is and isn't an appropriate use of Facebook and other social media usually is for the court of public opinion to decide.

But this week in Philadelphia, the question will be decided in a court of law.

Prosecutors want Philadelphia municipal court Judge Charles Hayden to recuse himself from hearing the drunken-driving case of state Rep. Cherelle Parker of Philadelphia because they are friends on Facebook.

Hayden has refused, and a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The matter isn't the first and won't be the last time a Pennsylvania judge's credibility has been questioned because of social media. This case, though, is higher profile because Hayden already has ruled in Parker's favor in a key decision by suppressing some of the evidence against her.

Judges should be reining in their use of Facebook because as dispensers of justice, they must avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety. Even a superficial Facebook relationship can create that appearance.

"If it comes out in the course of a trial that that judge has friended one side or the other or one attorney or the other … it can create the perception that there is a relationship," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan nonprofit seeking to reform the court system.

While a state judicial committee is studying the issue as part of a broader ethics review, some judges already are doing what they can to avoid getting tangled in sticky Web issues.

"I defriended just about everybody on my Facebook," Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano said.

Dumping about 150 people wasn't easy, considering that unlike many Facebook users, he actually knows a lot of the people he was Facebook friends with, including lawyers. He wanted to avoid questions about his impartiality should those lawyers have cases before him.

"I think it makes people uncomfortable," Giordano said.

New Allentown District Judge Michael D'Amore is aware, too. In a recent article in The Morning Call, he said he's had to change how he uses Facebook "and delete and stop posting certain things and be careful with the things I do post."

Giordano said he knows of two other Northampton County judges who are on Facebook.

In Lehigh County, President Judge Carol McGinley told me she surveyed judges at a recent lunch and none of those in attendance, which was almost the entire bench, uses Facebook.

She said there are no county court rules against judges using Facebook, but she believes "it's a risky thing for a judge to do."

"It provides accessibility to the judge by people who shouldn't for one reason or another be able to access the judge," she said. "It risks the appearance and the reality of impartiality through inadvertent contact."

Lehigh County Judge Edward D. Reibman is among the non-users. He is ethics committee chairman of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges.

Reibman said no judge has asked the committee about social media issues, but the committee has invited a social media expert to explain how Facebook and similar venues work, and what judges might want to consider before using them.

He seconded Giordano's concern about judges having Facebook friendships with lawyers because other lawyers could question those connections.

He said judges can head off potential questions by disclosing social media or other social relationships with lawyers as some already do if they are golfing or family friends. Some lawyers might be fine practicing before a judge they know has a connection with opposing counsel, while others may not.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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