Judicial Ethics and Social Media

On February 21, 2013, the American Bar Association released a formal opinion (#462) regarding judicial ethics in the social media context.  The ABA concluded,

A judge may participate in electronic social networking, but as with all social relationships and contacts, a judge must comply with relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and avoid any conduct that would undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality, or create an appearance of impartiality.

So what does this mean?

Electronic Social Media and the Judicial Independence, impartiality, and integrity

The ABA recognized that social networking is a part of worldwide culture and that electronic social media interactions might be beneficial to judges in order to prevent them from being thought of as isolated or out of touch.

So how should judges then behave in this electronic environment?  Given the oath and importance of promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality,” the judge must be sensitive to the appearance of relationships with others.

It is important to understand that relations over the internet are difficult to manage because messages may be taken out of context, misinterpreted, or relayed incorrectly.

In other words, judges must assume that comments, images, or profile information, as well as any other information, might be publicly revealed without the judge’s permission.

In addition, judges should not form relationships with persons or organizations that might be violative of Judicial Ethics because these relationships convey that the individuals or organizations are in a position to influence the judge.

Furthermore, there might be disclosure or disqualification concerns regarding judges when the sites that were “friended” or “liked” which are used by lawyers or others who may appear before the judge.  The context is important here when assessing the judge’s relationship to attorneys or others who may appear before them.

Electronic Social Media and Election Campaigns

In the ABA Model Code (which may be adopted as a whole or in part by states), a judge or judicial candidate may engage in political or campaign activity with certain enumerated exceptions.

Of great importance is that judges and judicial candidates must “be free and appear to be free from political influence and political pressure.” ABA Model Rule 4.1 [1].

Similarly of equal importance, the judge or judicial candidate is prohibited from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions other than through a campaign committee.  ABA Model Rule 4.1(A)(8); see also ABA Model Rule 4.4.  In the Model Rules, the method of communication is not addressed or restricted.

In addition, judges and judicial candidates are prohibited from “publicly endorsing or opposing a candidate for any public office.” ABA Model Rule 4.1(A)(3).  This means that judges or judicial candidates should be aware that by “liking” or becoming a “fan” of, or by “sharing” messages, photos, or other content, this Model Rule might be violated.

In sum, judges and judicial candidates can use social media but must be aware of the potential pitfalls that might arise. These might arise from “friending,” “liking,” “sharing,” being a “fan” of, and posting comments, photos, or other information that might be distributed.  It is also important for judges and judicial candidates to be aware that any information on the Internet might be distributed by others and made public with or without their consent.

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