Judges on FB all a-Twitter

The question isn’t should judges use Facebook and other social media. The question is how judges should use popular social networking sites.

At least that’s the question the American Bar Association has addressed in a recently issued ethics opinion.  (Formal Opinion 462) http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/formal_opinion_462.authcheckdam.pdf

My question is, why the heck would they want to use those social media?

The ABA opinion, titled “Judge’s Use of Electronic Social Networking Media,” says:  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 impropriety.

The ABA Journal, in reporting on the opinion, put an emphasis on whether or not judges should disclose who their Facebook Friends are. The issue being the possibility/potential of conflicts of interest regarding cases and parties before them or other aspects of their judicial duties.


A benefit the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, which formulated the opinion, cited is public outreach.

While judicial outreach is important and can be useful, doing so in the brier patch of Status Updates and Tweets, can be risky business, IMHO.

One reason is the “electronic social media” (ESM) user’s loss of control of his/her message once it’s retweeted, shared and commented upon. Another is an inability to foresee how such a message might be interpreted–and once out in cyberspace, it can’t be redacted. Corrected, clarified, explained, apologized for, yes. But not redacted.

Many judges I worked with during my years as  Los Angeles court information officer and media liaison avoided or took great care when speaking to members of the media. Occasionally, some who did rued the day and sought damage-control help.

My role, as I saw it, wasn’t to tell them whether they should or shouldn’t — although I did do that on rare occasions. Rather, I would discuss with them the pros and cons, what they hoped to accomplish if they did or didn’t, and how to accomplish their goal if they did.

One who took the greatest pains to stay out of the public eye, except when on the bench, presided over some of the highest-profile trials — including two that were televised — but whose name is almost unknown.

Stanley Weisberg presided over the 1990 second trial of the infamous McMartin Preschool child molestation case, the 1992 Rodney King-beating trial and the 1993 trial and 1996 retrial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were charged with (and eventually convicted of) killing their parents.

Weisberg not only never spoke to the press, except when on the record in official proceedings, he spoke to me only reluctantly and sparingly. He also, unlike most other judges I knew,  kept his chambers door closed most, if not all, of the time.

Many judges believe that when they accept the mantle (or robe) of judge, they must relinquish some degree of their First Amendment rights.

My advice to judges, were I still in a position to advise them, would be if they want to be on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, they should choose their Friends and who they follow very carefully. They should disclose to parties whose cases they hear the ESM they participate in and be prepared to provide names if asked. And they must be sure to never, ever post, tweet or make any comment that they would not want to read in a newspaper or online, or to hear on air.


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