It was only a matter of time until social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn would pose some complex legal issues.
In a 4-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court held that a judge does not automatically need to recuse him or herself from hearing a case because of a Facebook friendship with one of the lawyers. A Florida law firm sought to force the recusal of a Miami-Dade Judge because she was Facebook friends with a lawyer representing a potential party to the lawsuit as well as a potential witness. The Court affirmed a decision last year by the state’s Third District Court of Appeal.
The Florida Supreme Court reasoned that, in the most basic sense, an online social media friendship is a digital connection between people. The two may not be friends in the more traditional sense of the word. It is common for Facebook and other social media friendships to be more casual than traditional friendships. Likewise, they often are less permanent than traditional friendships. The Florida Supreme Court noted the connection on Facebook and other social media “may be as fleeting as the flick of a delete button.” The Court noted that a mere existence of a Facebook friendship between an attorney and a member of the judiciary – without more – does not reasonably equate a close friendship. Writing for the majority decision, Chief Justice Charles Canady ultimately concluded that no reasonably prudent person would be afraid that he or she could not receive an impartial and fair trial solely based on the fact that a judge and an attorney were Facebook friends.
Justice Jorge Labarga, concurring, strongly urged the judiciary to not participate in Facebook. Justice Barbara Pariente dissented, stating she would adopt a strict rule mandating that judges recluse themselves in such circumstances.
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision falls in line with other Florida precedent addressing the issue of traditional friendships. Under Florida law, the mere allegation of a friendship between a member of the judiciary and an attorney or a litigant, in and of itself, is not sufficient for disqualification.
Judges should not friend lawyers on social media if they appear before them in court, according to advice from the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (FJEAC). The Florida Supreme Court said, however, that the FJEAC position is in the minority. The Court went so far as to note that the committee’s concern regarding friendships on social media sites to be “unwarranted.”