Facebook friends with a judge? Recusal may not be necessary

June 6, 2013 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A committee on judicial ethics ruled that a judge’s Facebook relationship with the parents of the victims of an alleged crime is not enough for the judge to be removed from a criminal trial, presumably the trial of the alleged offender.
The defendant’s attorney in the case asked the judge to voluntarily remove himself for the trial after it was discovered that the judge and the victim’s parents were Facebook “friends.”  Requesting the opinion of the judicial ethics committee, the unnamed judge asked whether a mere Facebook friendship violated any code of ethics or appearance of impartiality.

With regard to social media relationships, the committee discerned there is not “anything inherently inappropriate about a judge joining and making use of a social network.” The committee did caution that judges should be “mindful of the appearance created” when entering relationships via a social networking site.

Regarding the case in front of the committee, the panel held the impartiality of the inquiring judge cannot be called into question simply because he “friended” individuals who are now involved in a case pending in his courtroom. Further, the committee found that “the mere status of being a `Facebook friend,’ without more, is an insufficient basis to require recusal.”

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Some judges have been reassigned due to complaints of Facebook friendships. Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino was transferred from Staten Island to Manhattan in 2009 after lawyers complained to the Office of Court Administration that Sciarrino had asked a number of lawyers to be Facebook “friends.” The lawyers believed “a boundary that should be maintained in the courtroom had been crossed,” David Bookstaver, a spokesperson for OCA, said at the time.

Sciarrino, now a Brooklyn Criminal Court judge, was involved in another case surrounding social media.  In 2012, Sciarrino presided over the trial of Occupy Wall Street protesters who were arrested after walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Sciarrino demanded that Twitter release copies of the messages of one Occupy Wall Street protester. The protestor asserted that the message were private record; Sciarrino ruled that once the messages were broadcast, they were no longer private. Twitter has appealed Sciarrino’s ruling.

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