Just friends? Think twice before “friending” the bench

Can’t lawyers and judges just be “friends?” Apparently not, so ruled Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal last week in Domville v. State, No. 4D12-556 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). The Fourth District’s decision is seemingly the first of its kind since the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued an opinion in November 2009 forbidding judges from accepting “social networking” friendships from lawyers who may appear before them.

In Domville, a criminal defendant moved to disqualify the trial judge whom the defendant alleged was a Facebook friend of the prosecutor assigned to the case. The defendant supported his motion with an affidavit averring that this “Facebook relationship” caused the defendant to believe that the judge could not “be fair and impartial.” The defendant further explained that he was a Facebook user and that his “friends” consisted “only of [his] closest friends and associates, persons whom [he] could not perceive with anything but favor, loyalty and partiality.” The trial judge denied the motion to disqualify as “legally insufficient.”

“A judge’s activity on a social networking site may undermine confidence in the judge’s neutrality”

On appeal, the Domville court quashed the trial court’s order denying disqualification of the trial judge and, in so doing, gave the Advisory Committee’s opinion much credence: “as the [Advisory] Committee recognized, a judge’s activity on a social networking site may undermine confidence in the judge’s neutrality.” The Advisory Committee further admonished this practice because “the identification of the lawyer as a ‘friend’ on [a] social networking site [improperly] conveys the impression that the lawyer is in a position to influence the judge.”

For now, Domville clearly advises the social-networking community to be aware of creating appearances of impropriety.  But what implication will Domville have on the rest of us bench-friendly Facebook fans? Are we now forced to comb through our ever-growing “friend” base after every judicial election cycle for fear of an incoming motion to disqualify? Do judges now have the responsibility to “block” a lawyer who wants to add them as a friend? Do these prohibitions extend to the rest of the lawyer’s law firm? These questions aside, it’s clear that Florida lawyers and judges have been warned.