FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee

Opinion Number: 2013-14
Date of Issue: July 30, 2013

ISSUES

1. May a judge running for re-election create a Twitter account with a privacy setting open so anyone — including lawyers — would be able to follow the account?

ANSWER: Yes, under specified circumstances.

2. May the judge’s campaign manager create and maintain the Twitter account instead of the judge?

ANSWER: Yes.

FACTS

In anticipation of the inquiring judge’s re-election campaign, the judge is considering using a Twitter account as one of the judge’s campaign tools.  The inquiring judge explains that “Twitter does not require the account holder to select who follows the account holder’s ‘tweets.’  People just sign on and as the account holder ‘tweets,’ the account holder’s followers receive it . . . Another aspect of Twitter is the ability to create hashtags.  All Twitter users then can search for tweets containing a specific hashtag . . . I could create a specific hashtag for my campaign account.” 

    
DISCUSSION

Prior JEAC opinions on the subject of social media have cited Canon 2B of the Code of Judicial Conduct as the applicable authority for restricting judicial use of social media.  Canon 2B states in relevant part:  “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others; nor shall a judge convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.”  The relevant part of Canon 2B is underscored here for emphasis.  The analysis of the social media issue — specifically Facebook — focused upon selecting “Facebook friends.”  The Committee opined that this function of Facebook lent itself to the appearance of impropriety, to wit:  in choosing or declining to make someone — specifically a lawyer who appears before the judge — a Facebook friend, a judge “could convey or permit others to convey the impression that they [the Facebook friends] are in a special position to influence the judge.”  Fla. JEAC Op. 2009-20.

Fla. JEAC Op. 2009-20 involved a judge inquiring in relation to the judge’s campaign plans.  The inquiring judge’s inquiry was submitted in four parts:

The Committee opined that Canon 2B allows judicial participation in a “subject matter” forum, and that:

[In] order to fall within the prohibition of Canon 2B . . . three elements must be present.

 

It is this selection and communication process, the Committee believes, that violates Canon 2B, because the judge, by so doing, conveys or permits others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.

Based upon the inquiring judge’s explanation of Twitter, Canon 2B would not preclude a judge running for re-election from maintaining a Twitter account.  The inquiring judge seeks to use a Twitter account for campaign “tweets” such as judicial philosophy, campaign slogans, and blurbs about the candidate’s background.

Twitter has several dimensions, however, in addition to those described in the judge’s inquiry.  The site’s primary objective is to enable an account holder to share information to a population limited only by the number of Twitter account holders.  Upon setting up a Twitter account, users have the option to control who sees their updates. True, as the inquiring judge states, users do not select followers. A user can, however, block specific followers, preventing those blocked from seeing tweets and other traffic on the user’s account. In addition, Twitter enables users to mark tweets as “favorites,” to create lists of Twitter users and subscribe to lists created by other users. 

If a user posts a tweet that is complimentary or flattering to the inquiring judge, the judge could re-tweet it or mark it as a “favorite.”  No matter how innocuous the tweet, this could convey or permit the tweeter to convey the impression that the tweeter is in a special position to influence the judge. 

A judicial Twitter account user could create a list of followers.  Those listed could be perceived to be in a special position to influence the judicial candidate.  The inquiring judge could avoid this appearance by not creating any lists of followers.  Still, if the inquiring judge were to appear on another Twitter user’s list of followers, that follower could create the impression of being in a special position to influence the judge.  Twitter has a “direct message” feature that enables users to send messages directly to and receive messages directly from their “followers.” 

Canon 5A, particularly subsections 5A(1), (2) and (5), beg consideration: 

Extrajudicial Activities in General.  A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extra­judicial activities so that they do not:

(1) cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge;
(2) undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality;
. . . .
(5) lead to frequent disqualification of the judge.

A judge’s Twitter account creates an avenue of opportunity for ex parte communication.  Assume a Twitter user is a party who has a case assigned to a judge with a Twitter account.  The party could send the judge a tweet about the case.  The judge unwittingly would receive the tweet.  The only way to avoid receiving the tweet would be if the judge knew the party’s Twitter account name, and exercised Twitter’s blocking option when the judge set up the judge’s Twitter account.  Thus, although Twitter does not fall squarely on all fours of Fla. JEAC Op. 2009-20, it has features which could prove problematic as a campaign tool for a judge running for re-election.

The inquiring judge’s second inquiry suggests as an alternative that the campaign manager or another person connected with the judge’s re-election campaign set up the Twitter account.  This is a more prudent option in that it would eliminate the potential for ex parte communication. Favorite tweets would not be selected by the judge, but by the campaign manager or committee. Caution should be applied, however, if any follower lists are created in the account.

In sum, the inquiring judge will not be in violation of Canon 2B if a Twitter account is created in that judge’s name.  The most sensible way to use Twitter as a campaign tool would be for the judge’s campaign committee or manager to create and maintain the account.

    

 

REFERENCES

Fla. Code Jud. Conduct Canons 2A, 2B and 5A.

Fla. JEAC Ops. 2009-20, 2010-4, 2010-6, 2010-28, and 2012-12.

_____________


The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate.

Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and to the judiciary at large. Conduct that is consistent with an advisory opinion issued by the Committee may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions by the Committee. See Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So. 2d 834 (Fla. 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. See Id.

The Committee expresses no view on whether any proposed conduct of an inquiring judge is consistent with substantive law which governs any proceeding over which the inquiring judge may preside. The Committee only has authority to interpret the Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore its opinions deal only with the issue of whether the proposed conduct violates a provision of that Code.

For further information, contact Judge Roberto Arias, Chair, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, Duval County Courthouse, 501 West Adams Street, Room 7180, Jacksonville, Florida 32202-4603.

Participating Members:
Judge Roberto Arias, Robert T. Benton, II, Dean Bunch, Esquire, Judge Lisa Davidson, Judge Jack Espinosa, Jr., Judge Jonathan D. Gerber, Judge T. Michael Jones, Judge Barbara Lagoa,  Patricia E. Lowry, Esquire, Judge Michelle Morley, Judge Richard R. Townsend, Judge Dorothy L. Vaccaro. 


Copies furnished to:
Inquiring judge (Name of the Inquiring Judge deleted)
Justice Charles T. Canady
Thomas D. Hall, Clerk of Supreme Court
All Committee Members
Executive Director of the J.Q.C.
Office of the State Courts Administrator