Yesterday the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a judge should be recused for being Facebook friends with an attorney appearing in front of her. A Miami law firm sought to disqualify Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko on grounds that she was Facebook friends with an attorney representing the opposition. Judge Butchko refused to recuse herself and the matter was appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal. The Third DCA likewise refused to recuse Judge Butchko, finding a “friend” on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word.
The Florida Supreme Court took on the issue given the important overarching theme – the possibility of the appearance of impropriety between the court and a party appearing before it. Justice Canady appeared to agree with the Third DCA when indicating, “Facebook friends frequently are friends of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend,” before stating just participating in a network such as Facebook should not de facto lead to disqualification. But Justice Pariente warned participating in Facebook can be a danger leading to disqualification and the wiser course is not to have “lawyers as friends.”
While certainly avoiding the appearance of impropriety is critical to a fair justice system, that must be balanced with benefit of networking between attorneys and judges. Judges and attorneys in Jacksonville frequently network at Jacksonville Bar Association and other civic events, such as Rotary Clubs. The Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association held an event just this week with the specific purpose of bringing attorneys and judges together in a professional, yet social setting. If being Facebook friends is deemed improper, are these events likewise improper? What about LinkedIn, the social networking site dedicated to professionals? If the appearance of impropriety is extended to include something as innocuous as being linked on a social media website, wouldn’t actual networking be viewed as more egregious? And, if that is the case, are judges simply supposed to remove themselves from all professional, networking, and social engagements where attorneys may be present? That logic seems unfair to judges. The better course of action, I believe, is to continue to allow judges to make judgments on a case by case basis whether the appearance of impropriety is such that recusal is necessary, rather than a blanket opinion that judges and attorneys linked socially – online or otherwise – does create an appearance of impropriety.</P
It is an interesting case that I look forward to seeing the Court’s opinion on.