Being a friend of the judge could create a conflict of interest, but a Facebook friend -- not so much.
That's what a Florida appeals court said in a case that naturally drew social media attention. But it wasn't even a close question whether a judge should be disqualified for being a Facebook "friend" with a lawyer.
"To be sure, some of a member's Facebook 'friends' are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty," the Third District Court of Appeal said. "The point is, however, many are not."
Why Can't We Be Friends?
The problem started when lawyers at Herssein and Herssein filed a motion to disqualify the judge in a case with its former client. The law firm said a potential party and witness in the case was represented by a lawyer who was a Facebook "friend" of the judge.
Because of the Facebook friendship, "I have a well-grounded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial," declared Reuven Herssein.
The judge denied the motion, and the firm petitioned the appeals court. Judge Thomas Logue, writing for the unanimous panel, said, "really?"
Actually, the jurists said allegations of mere friendship are not sufficient grounds for disqualification. It really requires something akin to bias.
To Friend or Not to Friend
It could happen. Another Florida appeals court said recusal was required when a judge was a Facebook friend with a prosecutor. In that case, the Fourth District court cited a judicial ethics opinion that said judges should not add lawyers who appear before them as "friends."
The Third District disagreed, however, saying a Facebook friendship doesn't mean a close relationship that alone should cause recusal. The court reasoned that many "friends" are selected by Facebook's data-mining technology rather than personal interactions.
"An assumption that all Facebook 'friends' rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking," the court said.