Judges and Blogging: An Ethical Minefield (Special Credit)


A variety of social media channels (“SMCs”), including Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Instagram, manage to pay for customers adequate opportunities to interact with pals, colleagues, or even strangers. According to a November 2016 Report issued via Pew Research Center, greater than 75% of Americans utilize one or more SMCs, and increasingly, Americans interact with them as a minimum of once daily.


Some of those users are judges, and moral troubles are bound to stand up when they take part. Indeed, each California and Federal Judicial Canon may be implicated by using a choose’s use of an SMC. While diverse advisory critiques issued within the ultimate decade offer treasured steerage, the constant evolution of SMCs requires the contemporaneous evaluation of the way a judge’s use of an SMC implicates their moral duties.

Last July, the Ninth Circuit issued an instructive opinion in a case it deemed “a cautionary story approximately the viable pitfalls of judges engaging in social media activity referring to pending instances.” United States v. Sierra Pacific Industries, 862 F.3d 1157, 1175-1176 (Ninth Cir. 2017). As reflected in Sierra Pacific, judges need to continue to be abreast of the technologies with which they interact, the character of the communications they allow, and the way and when their social media interest can become publicly to be had. The court docket particularly referred to “the significance of preserving the appearance of propriety both on and off the bench.” Id.


The answer is yes, however as cited beneath, the complete solution is “Yes, but be very cautious.” In the commentary to Canon 4A, the California Code of Judicial Ethics states that “a decision ought to turn out now not to be isolated from the community wherein she or he lives.” In 2017, we ought to apprehend that a judge’s “community exists and an increasing number of interacts inside the realm of our online world.” California Judges Ass’n, Judicial Ethics Comm., Opinion sixty-six (“Cal. Opinion sixty-six”), p. Four. But just as in-character interactions can from time to time run afoul of the Judicial Canons, so too can virtual communications. “The same policies that govern a choose’s ability to socialize and communicate in person, on paper, and over the cell phone follow to the Internet.” Id.



In 2009, the federal authorities filed an action against diverse defendants bobbing up out of the 2007 Moonlight Fire near Plumas National Forest. On the eve of trial, the events reached an agreed settlement, and, at the request of the parties, the district courtroom entered judgment brushing off the case with prejudice. Following access to justice, the defendants filed a motion to alleviate judgment underneath FRCP 60(d)(three). The district court docket denied the motion. (The moonlight fireplace litigation became the duvet tale in the April 2015 printed edition of California Lawyer.)

The identical day the district court denied the motion, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Easter District of California (“USAO”) posted eight tweets approximately the outcome of the case. The defendants alleged that the district courtroom judge who presided over the Rule 60 motion managed a Twitter account that “accompanied” the USAO on Twitter. The defendants also argued that the choose’s Twitter account “tweeted” a link to an allegedly erroneous information article about the case titled “Sierra Pacific nonetheless answerable for Moonlight Fire damages.” The Twitter account in query did no longer publicly indicate it related to the judge or the court docket.

The defendants appealed the denial of the Rule 60 motion and, among different matters, argued the district court decide ought to be disqualified on the premise of his Twitter hobby. The Ninth Circuit assessed whether or not the choose’s failure to recuse himself constituted plain error.


judges In Sierra Pacific, the court docket implemented the Code of Conduct for United States Judges and in particular considered whether the trial judge violated the subsequent Canons: Canon 2A, which prohibits behavior that might give “a look of impropriety”; Canon 3A(4), which prohibits ex parte communications; and, Canon 3A(6), which prohibits “public comment on the deserves of a depend pending.” Each of these Canons has a California corollary; respectively, California Code of Judicial Ethics Canons 2A, 3B(7), and 3B(9). Although this is not an exhaustive list of Judicial Canons conceivably implicated by using a choose’s use of SMC, judges must be mainly aware of these Canons when assessing their SMC pastime.


A choose must keep in mind “the character of the website” he or she interacts with while comparing whether or not his or her use of an SMC ought to create an appearance of impropriety. Cal. Opinion sixty-six, p. 7. This is especially proper in which a “judge engages in the use of social media at the same time as also listing his or her affiliation with the court docket.” Comm. On Codes of Conduct Advisory Opinion No. 112 (“Fed. Opinion 112”), p. 222.

In Sierra Pacific, the defendants argued that an appearance of impropriety resulted from the choice “following” the USAO on Twitter. The courtroom considered the character of Twitter, looking at that it changed into not mostly a car for private, personal interactions, but for public broadcasts: “information organizations, celebrities, and even excessive-up government officials use Twitter as a reliable way of conversation, with the message supposed for huge audiences.” In light of this context, the choose simply following the USAO Twitter account did “now not proof a personal dating.” Absent evidence of “private” interactions between the judge and the USAO, the choice without a doubt to follow a Twitter account did not provide rise to a look of impropriety.

The defendants also argued that an appearance of impropriety resulted from tweeting a hyperlink to an “inaccurate” news article approximately the case. But “[e]ven assuming the choose owned or controlled the disputed Twitter account” the Twitter account did no longer publicly discover the judge, the courtroom, or any member of the judiciary.

These findings underscore numerous important matters.

First, the character of Twitter was critical. Whereas the court determined Twitter is applied in general “as an authentic means of communication” (862 F.3d at 1174), that won’t be actual of different SMCs, including Facebook or Instagram.

Relatedly, the court docket also considered how the USAO—the birthday celebration they decide to interact with online—utilized social media. In this case, it becomes an organization sharing reputable bulletins publicly. The outcome might be distinctive if the choice changed into “buddies” with a character attorney on Facebook. That lawyer’s Facebook profile included by and large pics of her own family. This shows that judges want to display the hobby of any man or woman or organization that they “observe” or “buddy” on social media.


Finally, the decision’s interest online turned into nameless. Because the Twitter profile did now not discover the judge by using the name or seek advice from the court docket, the account’s hobby became extensively less probably to present an look of impropriety.


“The capability that a judge may additionally get hold of improper ex parte communications is much greater while the judge is interacting with lawyers who may additionally appear inside the judge’s courtroom.” Cal. Opinion sixty-six, p.10. But this doesn’t suggest that a choice ought to keep altogether away from interacting with legal professionals who may also appear in their court docket. Rather, judges ought to surely “take care to keep away from remarks and interactions that may be interpreted as ex parte communications.” A.B.A. Formal Opinion 462, p.2.

In Sierra Pacific, the defendants argued that the decide acquired impermissible ex parte communications whilst he acquired the tweets published by way of the USAO in violation of Canon 3A(4). But, as stated, the USAO Twitter account in query published the handiest public news items, and “none of the challenged tweets have been specially directed by the U.S. Attorney to the choice.” Sierra Pacific, 862 F.3d at 1175. Citing the Committee on Codes of Conduct’s Advisory Opinion, the court docket explained that “worries of flawed communications get up in the context of the change of frequent messages, wall posts, or tweets between a judge or judicial worker and a pal on a social community who also recommends in a case pending before the court docket.” Id.

Notably, the Federal and California Canons aren’t flawlessly congruent with appreciate to the prohibition on ex parte communications. California Canon 3B(7) states that “a choose shall now not independently check out facts in a proceeding … [t]his prohibition extends to statistics to be had in all media, along with digital” While Federal Canon 3A(4) merely states that “a judge has to now not initiate, permit, or don’t forget ex parte communications….”

Although Sierra Pacific instructs that a federal judge may permissibly follow a lawyer appearing before her or him on Twitter–so long as there are not common non-public messages among them–it might be imprudent for a California choose to do so. The act of “following” such an account may be construed as independent research to have digital media violated Canon 3B(7). If a California choose interacts with lawyers who may additionally seem earlier than him or her online, the judge has to take prophylactic measures to ensure the one’s interactions cease on every occasion the attorney does seem earlier than they choose.

California judges ought to additionally continually expose any online social networking relationship with suggest performing earlier than them. Cal. Opinion 66, p. 10. “The want for disclosure arises from the extraordinary nature of online social networking sites, in which evidence of the relationship among the lawyer and the decision is huge however the nature of the connection might not be easily obvious.” Id.


“[A]big apple comments a decide to make on a social media networking website need to be dealt with as public feedback in the that means of Canon 3B(9).” Cal. Opinion sixty-six, p.Five. A decide must never “expect that feedback made on a social networking website are personal.” Id. P.4. Judges must mainly avoid online interest that “extensively recommendations at the possible outcome of a pending case, divulges private case processing approaches, or famous personal records approximately the fame of jury deliberations.” Fed. Opinion 112, p.225

In Sierra Pacific, the defendant alleged that the judge impermissibly tweeted a hyperlink to an article about the case that painted defendants in a faulty mild. The court took into consideration it giant that the alleged public remark protected best a hyperlink to a public article, with no additional editorializing by the decide: “[t]he tweet consisted most effective of the name and link to a publicly available news article about the case in a neighborhood newspaper, without any further commentary.” But the court persevered, “[e]even if the judge’s desire of the specific article he posted and its allegedly erroneous title could be construed as public commentary … no longer each violation of the Code of Conduct” calls for recusal. 862 F.3d at 1175.

So at the same time as the Sierra Pacific court located persuasive that the choose shared the news article without remark, it stopped brief of concluding such social media activity did not or couldn’t “be construed as public commentary.”

Notwithstanding the ruling in Sierra Pacific, judges should avoid any social media posts about cases pending earlier than them, together with sharing articles approximately the instances. Moreover, even though the judge in Sierra Pacific believed he become collaborating in Twitter anonymously, judges ought to additionally heed the cautionary advisory opinion and by no means “expect that comments made on a social networking website are non-public.” Cal. Opinion 66, p.4.

Participation in social media is a regular fact of lifestyles for pretty much all of us. But for judges, such pastime calls for exceptional sensitivity, exceptional discretion, and super caution. Nothing much less will hold the courtroom’s integrity and assure all who appear in a judicial discussion board that they are in an area wherein an impartial, independent official will dispense justice.