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25 February 2016

Judges need social media savvy, warns new research

Many US judges just don't 'get' social media, and it's leading to some pretty disastrous situations.

By Kathryn Higgins

Ion Chiosea

Let's be honest here—not many judges are yet of the 'Facebook generation'. However, as more and more judges get online, two Texas legal professionals have warned of the rising phenomenon of judges 'using social media badly'. An article by Dallas-based trial lawyer John G. Browning and Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett entitled 'Rules of engagement: Exploring judicial use of social media' has appeared in this month's Texas Bar Journal, regaling readers with cautionary tales of how judicial presence on social media can go terribly, terribly wrong.

Blunders abound

The dominant theme of judicial mishaps online seems to be a low awareness of just how public 'socialising' becomes when it is done on Facebook or Twitter. In one instance, a Minnesota judge made comments about trials he was presiding over on Facebook, believing that his posts could only be seen by family and friends. One of his posts appeared to imply the guilt of the defendant in an ongoing sex-trafficking case, leading to a vacated verdict for the trial. In another incident, a U.S District Court Judge stands accused of partiality after posting on Twitter that lumber producer Sierra Pacific Industries was 'still responsible' for the 2007 Moonlight Fire in California—while the case, over which he himself presided, was still pending. Sierra Pacific is appealing the judge's decision to deny a motion to vacate its settlement with the federal government, pointing out that the judge's tweet was both inaccurate in its understanding of the case (as no finding of liability was ever made) and indicated a judicial bias against Sierra Pacific.

Words of warning

Justice Willett and Mr Browning insist that getting judges online can still be of enormous value to boosting the transparency of US courts and demystifying judicial proceedings for the general public, so long as judges approach the online sphere as informed, ethical users. '“Judge” need not by synonymous with humourless fuddy-duddy, but certain cardinal rules must be followed,' they warn. Avoiding discussing pending cased altogether is a good place to start, as is boosting awareness of the 'power, specific features and limitations' of interaction online. 'Whether writing a 140-page opinion or a 140-character tweet, judges must always be judicious,' the authors warn. Sources: Texas Bar JournalWall Street Journal

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