TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Grappling with the meaning of social-media relationships, a divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said judges do not have to disqualify themselves from cases in which they are Facebook “friends” with attorneys involved in the cases.
Chief Justice Charles Canady, writing for the majority in a Miami-Dade County case, drew distinctions between Facebook relationships and other types of friendships. Canady wrote that court precedents establish that “not every relationship characterized as a friendship provides a basis for disqualification. And there is no reason that Facebook ‘friendships’ -- which regularly involve strangers -- should be singled out and subjected to a per se rule of disqualification.”
“A Facebook ‘friend’ may or may not be a ‘friend’ in the traditional sense of the word,” Canady wrote for a four-member majority that included justices Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson. “But Facebook ‘friendship’ is not -- as a categorical matter -- the functional equivalent of traditional ‘friendship.’ The establishment of a Facebook ‘friendship’ does not objectively signal the existence of the affection and esteem involved in a traditional ‘friendship.’ Today it is commonly understood that Facebook ‘friendship’ exists on an even broader spectrum than traditional ‘friendship.’ ”
But Justice Barbara Pariente, in a dissent joined by justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, said the court should adopt a “strict rule” requiring judges to remove themselves from cases involving lawyers who are their Facebook friends.
“The bottom line is that because of their indeterminate nature and the real possibility of impropriety, social media friendships between judges and lawyers who appear in the judge’s courtroom should not be permitted,” Pariente wrote. “Under this rule, the opposing litigant would not be required to delve into how close the Facebook friendship may be, the judge avoids any appearance of impropriety, and Florida’s courts are spared from any unnecessary questions regarding the integrity of our judiciary.”
The ruling stemmed from an appeal filed by the Herssein Law Group, which has been involved in a legal battle with a former client, United States Automobile Association, about attorney fees and alleged fraud and breach of contract. The law firm sought the disqualification of Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko because she was a Facebook friend with attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent a company official in the case.
Butchko refused to step aside, leading the Herssein Law Group to take the issue to the 3rd District Court of Appeal. After losing at the appeals court, the Herssein Law Group went to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the issue.
During arguments in June, Maury Udell, an attorney for the Herssein Law Group, said he wasn’t contending “judges can’t be on Facebook.” But he pointed to the need for judges to avoid an appearance of impropriety, which could influence whether people think they are getting fair trials.
“Just don’t be Facebook friends with lawyers who appear in front you,” he said. “It goes back to the word I came up (with) in the beginning (of the arguments) -- which is optics. It just doesn’t look right.”
In his 20-page majority opinion Thursday, however, Canady offered a lengthy comparison of Facebook friendships and other types of relationships.
“In short, the mere fact that a Facebook ‘friendship’ exists provides no significant information about the nature of any relationship between the Facebook ‘friends,’” Canady wrote. “Therefore, the mere existence of a Facebook ‘friendship’ between a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge, without more, does not reasonably convey to others the impression of an inherently close or intimate relationship. No reasonably prudent person would fear that she could not receive a fair and impartial trial based solely on the fact that a judge and an attorney appearing before the judge are Facebook ‘friends’ with a relationship of an indeterminate nature.”
But even though he was part of the majority, Labarga wrote a concurring opinion in which he “strongly” urged judges not to have Facebook accounts.
“I recognize that in this day and age, Facebook may be the primary means some judges use to stay in touch with family members, actual friends, or people with whom they have reconnected after many years,” Labarga wrote. “If this is the case, then at the very least, judges should carefully review their Facebook accounts and limit their ‘friendships’ to cover only such individuals.”