Judge DQ'd for Ex Parte Facebook 'Friending' of Litigant - Strategist
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Judge DQ'd for Ex Parte Facebook 'Friending' of Litigant

Weren't we just discussing judges' use of social media?

Oh, but wait, that was on Twitter, a slightly more informal medium than Facebook. A tweet or follow on Twitter isn't anywhere near the same as a Facebook friendship -- especially when the friend request was sent by the judge, to a family court litigant, during the proceedings.

Ex parte? Duh. Just duh. And then the friendly judge, Linda D. Schoonover (she blogged too!), refused to disqualify herself.

5th District: 4th District's Ruling on Facebook Is Flawed

In 2012, Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal held that it was improper for a judge to "friend" attorneys through social media. (Remember, the ABA takes a more permissive avoid-the-appearance-of-impropriety-and-use-your-best-judgment stance.)

The Fifth District Court of Appeal thinks the Fourth District's decision is wrong. They note that oftentimes, a Facebook friendship is merely an online connection analogous to being social acquaintances. And upstate, in more rural parts of Florida, entire legal communities are often acquainted with each other.

"Other than the public nature of the Internet, there is no difference between a Facebook 'friend' and any other friendship a judge might have," the court noted. "Requiring disqualification in such cases does not reflect the true nature of a Facebook friendship and casts a large net in an effort to catch a minnow."

Either Way, Binding Precedent

If Domville prohibits judges from befriending attorneys on social media who appear before the court, it sure as heck would prohibit ex parte befriending the actual litigants before the decision on the case was reached. Judge Schoonover is a trial court judge. Appellate decisions, absent a conflict between districts, are binding on her court.

Oh, and It's Ex Parte

Schoonover not only sent a Facebook friend request to the litigant, Sandra Chace, but after Chace declined to respond (Facebook limbo!), the trial court reportedly dumped most of the marital debt on Chace, and provided her ex-husband with a "disproportionately excessive alimony award."

Did the spurned friendship lead to the harsh ruling? The question alone is the point, isn't it?

Maybe the ABA's guidance is naive. They told judges to use common sense to avoid the appearance of partiality. For some judges, common sense might be a bit too much to ask.

The opinion, quashing the order denying the motion to disqualify Judge Schooner, noted that the Domville precedent, no matter how questionable, wasn't even necessary to bench-slap the trial judge.

"The trial judge's efforts to initiate ex parte communications with a litigant is prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct and has the ability to undermine the confidence in a judge's neutrality," the court stated. "The appearance of partiality must be avoided. It is incumbent upon judges to place boundaries on their conduct in order to avoid situations such as the one presented in this case."

What do you think? A bit harsh to the lonely judge? Share your thoughts on Facebook. You can even friend FindLaw for Legal Professionals. We won't tell anybody.

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