The old musical question “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” may never have gotten a good answer — until a recent ruling by Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.
The Committee has decided that it’s a bad idea for judges and lawyers to present the appearance of being “friends,” even if only on Facebook. It’s okay, however, for lawyers to be “fans” of judges — at least as long as the judge has no say over who can call themselves a fan.
The Committee issued its advisory ruling a few weeks ago,, offering a firm “No” to the question, “Whether a judge may add lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a social networking site, and permit such lawyers to add the judge as their ‘friend.'”
Although the ruling is non-binding, Florida judges are already starting to warn their lawyer acquaintances that they may be “unfriended” in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers told the New York Times he thought the Committee was “being hypersensitive” and might be reflecting a generation gap, but one Committee member denied this was the case.
Even though some members of the Committee dissented from the ruling on the grounds that a social networking friend s really more like “a contact or acquaintance,” the general feeling was that it was important to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Judge Thomas McGrady, the chief of Florida’s 6th judicial circuit, told the Associated Press, “”We as judges can still be good judges and still have friends. … But others in the public who see judges listing a lawyer as a friend on facebook, they may think that because they are your friend, they will be treated differently.”
“If somebody’s my friend, I’ll call them on the phone,” McGrady added.
The Commission did agree, however, that when a judge is running for office, it’s acceptable to set up a page “which has an option for persons, including lawyers who may appear before the judge, to list themselves as ‘fans’ or supporters of the judge’s candidacy, so long as the judge or committee does not control who is permitted to list himself or herself as a supporter.”