Florida Judge Disqualified for "Friending" Prosecutor

    September 25, 2012

    A Florida trial judge’s status as Facebook friend of prosecutor constitutes legally sufficient ground for disqualification, according to the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

    Pierre Domville, a criminal defendant, moved to disqualify a trial judge and submitted an affidavit averring that the prosecutor handling the case and the trial judge are Facebook “friends.”  Domville further averred to believe that the judge could not “be fair and impartial,” and attributed adverse rulings to the judge’s Facebook relationship with the prosecutor. The trial judge denied the motion as “legally insufficient” and Domville appealed.

    The Fourth District Court of Appeal quashed the trial court’s order denying Domville’s motion to disqualify in light of a recent Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (JEAC) prohibiting such “friendships.” Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2B  states that “[a] judge shall not . . . convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.” In JEAC Op. 2009-20 (Nov. 17, 2009), the Committee concluded that the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct precludes a judge from both adding lawyers who appear before the judge as “friends” on a social networking site and allowing such lawyers to add the judge as their “friend.” The Committee determined that a judge’s listing of a lawyer as a “friend” on the judge’s social networking page — “[t]o the extent that such identification is available for any other person to view” — would violate Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2B.

    Specifically, the Committee concluded that when a judge lists a lawyer who appears before him as a “friend” on his social networking page this “reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge.” The Committee emphasized that “a judge’s activity on a social networking site may undermine confidence in the judge’s neutrality. Judges must be vigilant in monitoring their public conduct so as to avoid situations that will compromise the appearance of impartiality.”

    Applying this JEAC advisory opinion to the allegations contained in Domville’s motion and affidavit, the appellate court held that Domville “alleged facts that would create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.” The Court therefore quashed the order denying disqualification of the trial judge and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings.

    The aforementioned case is styled Pierre Domville v. Florida, case no. 4D12-556 (Fla. 4th DCA Sept. 5, 2012).

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