Does Facebook Friendship Require Recusal?

A decision from the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas seems to hold that a judge who is Facebook friends with a party in a matter before him must recuse himself as a matter of course; failure to do so, in this particular case, resulted in the judge’s decision being overturned. Does this mean that Pennsylvania judges will be subject to a new, lower standard for recusal?

On May 1, 2011, Pennsylvania State Representative Cherelle Parker was arrested for drunk driving. During a hearing in November 2011, the presiding judge, the Honorable Charles Hayden suppressed the testimony of the arresting officers, finding that, due to conflicting evidence, the officers’ testimony was “impossible” to believe.

After the Court issued its decision, the Attorney General became aware that Judge Hayden was Facebook “friends” with Representative Parker. Judge Hayden refused to recuse himself and the Attorney General appealed the case to the Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court. In January 2012, the Court issued an order reversing Judge Hayden’s ruling and ordering that he recuse himself from the case.

The basis for the Court’s order was its determination that Judge Hayden had abused his discretion by not recusing himself from the case, reports WHYY’s Newsworks. (Note: As of this post, we’ve been unable to locate a copy of the court’s order. Thus, our information is limited to the news reports. If you have a copy of the order, we’d appreciate having a look at it.)

This approach, however, seems likely to cause problems. Take this case for example: Judge Hayden has more than 1,500 Facebook “friends,” and Representative Parker has more than 4,500 Facebook “friends.” Moreover, Pennsylvania judges are elected, making them politicians of a sort. In this day and age, it is not unusual for politicians to have aids manage their social media accounts, especially when they are used for professional rather than personal purposes. Finally, most people with Facebook accounts will readily acknowledge that there is a real difference between a friend and a Facebook “friend.” Indeed, Representative Parker’s attorney asserts that she and Judge Hayden had no personal connection beyond their Facebook accounts.

Editor’s Comments by Molly DiBianca

Social-media activity by judges is an issue not likely to go away any time soon. Although many, if not most, judges do not use social-media sites like Facebook for personal use, it seems inevitable that this statistic will change and the number of judges who engage in social media will increase. This raises at least two questions. First, how, if at all, does the use of social media (and, particularly, social-networking sites), by judges affect their ability and/or perceived ability to remain impartial when an online “friend” is before them in the courtroom? Second, should bar associations opine about and/or take a formal position with respect to this question?

Ethics committees in at least five states have issued advisory opinions regarding online friending of attorneys by judges. All but one of the states to have addressed the question has come out on the side that friending an attorney who may appear in the judge’s courtroom is not, per se, impermissible, provided that the judge complies with the rules of ethics in all other respects, including impartiality. (Committees in Ohio South Carolina, and North Carolina have issued advisory opinions that permit judge-attorney friending; Florida’s ethics body concluded that such friendships were not appropriate).

But the story addressed in Lauren’s post, above, deals with a separate issue–specifically, whether the existence of a Facebook friendship between a judge and a party requires the judge recuse himself as a matter of course. Although the Pennyslvania court seems to have decided the answer to this query is “yes,” I am not convinced that it is quite that simple.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the issue–can a judge who is Facebook friends with a party (plaintiff or defendant) remain impartial or should he be required to recuse himself because of that online connection?

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