Palm Beach County judges should be careful who they friend on Facebook.
Refusing to step into a dispute between a West Palm Beach-based appeals court and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear a case that would decide whether judges statewide can be Facebook friends with lawyers who appear before them. For judges in Palm Beach and four other counties extending from Vero Beach to Fort Lauderdale, that means a ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal stands.
The appellate court, with offices on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, last year gave a thumbs-down to such virtual friendships. It ruled that "a reasonably prudent person (would have) a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial" if the judge was Facebook buddies with a prosecutor.
However, Chief Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Peter Blanc said the appeals court decision is limited. In its ruling, the appellate court ordered Broward County Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel off a case because he was Facebook friends with a lawyer who was prosecuting a man for lewd and lascivious behavior.
The appeals court ruling, Blanc said, doesn't apply to judges who are hearing civil lawsuits or even necessarily to criminal court judges who are overseeing different types of cases than the one that forced Siegel to step aside.
"It's not controlling. It's limited to the facts of that case," he said. Lawyers could use it to try to persuade a judge -- and possibly an appeals court -- to recuse himself. But, he said, success isn't guaranteed.
Had the Supreme Court heard the appeal and nixed such relationships, a new standard would have been set, Blanc said. Judges would have been forced to step aside or face ethics charges.
"It would have been nice for the Supreme Court to step in and say this is the black line," he said. "I can't speculate why the Supreme Court decided not to take it up."
Both the 4th District and Bondi called it a matter of "great public importance" for vastly different reasons. To Bondi, the issue was important because the appeals court got it wrong. Given the popularity of social networking sites and the tenuous relationship between virtual "friends," she argued that the decision could unfairly force judges to recuse themselves for no good reason, hampering the administration of justice.
In a two-paragraph ruling, the state's high court gave no reason why it decided the issue didn't merit its attention. Voting in the minority, Justices Barbara Pariente and Jorge Labarga said they would have liked to have heard what lawyers on both sides of the cyberspace divide had to say.
As a practical matter, some Palm Beach County judges said they either don't use Facebook or immediately "unfriended" lawyers when the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee in 2009 recommended that judges not have virtual relationships with attorneys.
For many judges, like Blanc and Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez, the problem is non-existent: Neither uses Facebook.
"If I did Facebook, I would just stay away from an electronic relationship with any lawyer who appears before me," Alvarez said. "It's easier. It's clearer. It's less involved."
Blanc said he never established a Facebook page because he worried about the possible ethical conflicts. "You give up a lot when you become a judge." Virtual friendships, he said, are one of them.
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