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Keep Your Facebook Drama Out of the Courtroom, Judges Warned

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 23, 2016 3:59 PM

Judges are just like everyone else. They love, they fear, they cry, they tweet. But on Monday, the New Mexico Supreme Court cautioned judges against crossing lines on social media.

Sure, judges can go ahead and repost that funny cat pic or hop on a trending hashtag. But the state supreme court wants them to keep the social media drama out of the courtroom -- something that several judges have proven they're not too good at.

The First Skype Reversal and a Warning to Judges

The New Mexico Supreme Court's decision came in a case over the use of the videoconferencing software Skype by testifying witnesses. Truett Thomas was convicted of murder and kidnapping in a trial where a witness Skyped in to testify against him. That deprived him of his right to a "physical face-to-face confrontation," the court ruled, reversing his convictions.

It's the first Skype reversal that we know of, and comes as courts are increasingly using video conferencing in criminal matters.

But the decision also touched on a Facebook controversy stemming from that same conviction. Former judge Samuel Winder took a very LiveJournal approach to his Facebook re-election page when overseeing Thomas's trial, it seems. At one point, he posted a status saying, "I am on the third day of presiding over my 'first' first-degree murder trial as a judge."

When Thomas was convicted, Winder posted that "justice was served. Thank you for your prayers."

Winder's Facebook campaigning didn't get him reelected, but they may have crossed a line. Without saying directly that Winder had violated judicial ethics, the state supreme court cautioned judges "that 'friending,' online postings, and other activity can easily be misconstrued and create an appearance of impropriety."

The Tricky Combo of Social Media and the Law

The New Mexico Supreme Court's caution is justified. As they noted, "Online comments are public comments, and a connection via an online social network is a visible relationship, regardless of the strength of the personal connection."

And social media has tripped up plenty of legal professionals, from judges, to lawyers, to law students. A federal judge in California may have jeopardized one of his rulings by following the local AUSA's twitter account -- leading a losing party to claim that AUSA tweets seen by the judge were #exparte communication.

We don't expect the New Mexico court's sentiment to be echoed in Texas, however. That's the realm of Don Willett, Texas Supreme Court Justice and "Tweeter Laureate of Texas," a prolific user of social media.

But, even Justice Willett has felt social media's bite. The justice was on Donald Trump's short list of potential Supreme Court nominees, but he may have lost his shot after online sleuths dug up a series of tweets mocking The Donald.

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