Legal Ethics

Judge's Facebook friendship didn't indicate bias, state appellate court rules

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When are friends not really friends? Perhaps on Facebook, the Fifth District of Texas Court of Appeals recently ruled, in a matter involving a judge’s social media contacts and perceived biases.

The appeal was brought by William Scott Youkers, who pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend and later had a community sentence revoked after testing positive for methamphetamines. According to the Dallas appellate blog 600 Commerce, the defendant sought a new trial on the basis that the judge in his case did not disclose a Facebook connection with the girlfriend’s father.

Prior to the plea agreement, according to the opinion (PDF), the father sent Becker a message through the social media site, asking that he go easy on Youkers.

The judgment regarding Youkers’ prison sentence of 10 years, with five years suspended, was affirmed by the appellate court. The judge acknowledged that he received the message, but he testified that he only knew the sender because they ran for office at the same time. As soon as he realized the nature of the communication, the opinion notes, he responded online, advising the father that the communication violated ex parte communication rules.The father apologized, according to the opinion.

Also, the jurist placed a copy of the communication in the court file, disclosed the matter to the lawyers and contacted the state’s judicial conduct commission to see if further action was needed.

“A reasonable person in possession of all of the facts in this case likely would conclude the contact between the judge and the father did not cause the judge to abandon his judicial role of impartiality,” the opinion states. “Besides the evidence that the judge and the father’s acquaintance was limited, any appearance of bias created by the Facebook communications was dismissed quickly by the judge’s handling of the situation.”

No Texas court has addressed judges using social media sites, the opinion states, and there are no rules prohibiting it. The court did note the ABA’s formal opinion 462 (PDF), which discusses factors for judges to consider when using social media. The court also noted that Texas judges are elected, and social media websites are campaign tools.

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