Facebook, Legal Ethics, State Judges, Technology

If You Are a Judge, Do Your Facebook Friends Matter?

It seems there is an interesting emerging trend in litigation these days: When a ruling doesn’t go your way, just make an appeal alleging judicial conflict of interest.

Same-sex marriage opponents wanted California judge Vaughn Walker to recuse himself from Prop. 8 hearings because he is gay. If and when the Supreme Court decides to rule on Obama’s healthcare law, some people have called for Clarence Thomas to recuse himself because of his wife’s outspoken work to repeal the act.

And yesterday, an Illinois woman convicted of child battery lost her appeal for a new trial. She appealed on the basis that the judge in her case’s adult children are Facebook friends with her alleged victim’s family….

The Chicago Sun-Times tells us the story:

Kelly A. Klein, 40, now faces sentencing for aggravated battery of a child. She was found guilty in June by Judge Daniel Rozak.

Steven Becker, the lawyer Klein hired after her bench trial conviction, argued his client deserved a new trial partly because Rozak’s children were Facebook friends with members of the victim’s family.

He also claimed Rozak has a personal relationship with the victim’s grandfather and that the two families’ children went to Reed-Custer High School around the same time.

Rozak has denied knowing the family members who testified before him, and he said he doesn’t vet his adult children’s friends or Facebook pages.

Klein was arrested in 2007 when a 7-month-old boy who attended her home daycare needed hospitalization. After coming home, the boy’s mother discovered bruises on his head and scratches on his abdomen. Doctors said they also found bleeding in his brain.

I’ve never heard a story like this before. My gut reaction is to think any sort of claim, simply based on Facebook friendliness, is ridiculous. Then again, depending on the details of a specific case, discovering Facebook (or other online) ties between parties in litigation could be indicators of some deeper conflict of interest. At least a few states have made ethics rulings to help attorneys and judges avoid Facebook friend conflicts of interest.

In Klein’s case, it sounds as if she and her attorney were grasping at straws:

Will County Judge Richard Schoenstedt heard Becker’s arguments and ruled against Klein on Wednesday. Schoenstedt said Becker presented “a series of dots that are unconnected,” and he said a ruling in Klein’s favor would mean judges all over Illinois would need to scour their own and family members’ Facebook pages before every bench trial.

I am Facebook friends with a fair number of people who I don’t know well at all — people I grew up with, but haven’t spoken to in several years. Or people who I met only for a short period of time — traveling in Europe, or stuck in an airport. It’s interesting to acknowledge the assumptions that can be made about you depending on who your online connections are.

Will asking myself, “Do I want to be associated with this person?,” make me think twice next time I accept a Facebook request? Probably not.

But it’s good to be aware of. And even though Becker’s appeal did not stick, stories like this should remind litigators that a little Facebook stalking is just another step worth taking to investigate a case.

Has anyone been involved in a case where Facebook friendship has led to claims of conflicts of interest or other unexpected drama? Please let us know in the comments or email us.

No new trial for woman who called out judge’s kids’ Facebook friends [Chicago Sun-Times]

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He covers legal technology and the West Coast for Above the Law. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at cdanziggmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.

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