@ the Center: Are Facebook friends really friends?

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AUGUST 29, 2018

Are Facebook friends really friends?


Tune into Court Talk

NCSC recently spoke with Florida court officials on Court Talk, our podcast, about the state’s updated communications plan, which includes their use of Facebook.

Judges from Savannah to Seattle are interested to hear how the Florida Supreme Court rules on a case that’s expected to bring clarity to the definition of a Facebook friend.

The ruling will impact future cases in Florida and may serve as a guide to courts in other states that are asked to rule on the nature of Facebook friendships that involve judges and the lawyers who practice in their courtrooms.

The Florida Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments this summer regarding Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association.

In 2017, Herssein and Herssein discovered that the Miami-Dade County judge hearing this case is a Facebook friend with a lawyer from U.S. Automobile, and the law firm filed a motion to disqualify the judge. Herssein and Herssein argued that the Facebook friendship violates Florida’s judicial ethics and conduct codes, but the trial court and the 3rd District Court of Appeals disagreed.

"An assumption that all Facebook `friends' rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking," the appellate judges wrote.

In a different case, the state's 4th District Court of Appeals disqualified a judge from a criminal case because he was a Facebook friend with a prosecutor.

With two appellate courts ruling differently on this, the Florida Supreme Court decided this issue needs clarification. 

The court is expected to release its ruling in the fall, and many judges in Florida and elsewhere will pay attention to it.

“I think judges in Florida will be very, very interested, and judges elsewhere will find the ruling of interest,” said Judge Catherine Shaffer, King County (Seattle) Superior Court, and president of the American Judges Association. “Personally, I steer clear of social media. I think misperception is all too easy. I also think that it is extraordinarily difficult to prevent improper ex parte contacts.  

“When I communicate electronically, it is via our court’s web page, or in email communications copied to all parties, or similar professional settings,” Judge Shaffer added. “But again, each judge decides this for themselves, with a careful eye to the ethical requirements of their own jurisdiction.”

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