Can Judges and Lawyers Be Facebook “Friends”? It Depends Where You Are.

An attorney can be friends with a judge IRL (in real life). Now they can be Facebook friends too–at least in the Third District.

The Third District Court of Appeal, recognizing the evolving influence and role of social media in our society, has held that a judge should not be disqualified from a case for merely being Facebook “friends” with counsel for a party.

In Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A., v. United Services Automobile Association, 3D17-1421 (Fla. 3d DCA Aug. 23, 2017), the petitioners filed a writ of prohibition, seeking to disqualify the trial court judge because a potential witness and a potential defendant was listed on the judge’s personal Facebook page as a “friend.”

This issue has nearly a decade of history in Florida law.  In 2009, a Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Opinion said that a judge may not add lawyers who may appear before him as “friends” on social networking sites, and vice versa.  In 2012, the Fourth District relied on the JEAC Opinion and granted a writ of prohibition, disqualifying a judge because he was Facebook “friends” with the prosecutor, Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

Then, in 2014, the Fifth District granted a writ of prohibition because the trial judge “reached out” to a party in a dissolution case while litigation was pending and tried to “friend” her on Facebook.”  Chace v. Loisel, 170 So. 3d 802 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014).  While clearly what the trial court did was wrong, and factually different than the issue in Domville, the Chace court went on to express “serious reservations about the court’s rationale in Domville.”  The Fifth District said that “there is no difference between a Facebook ‘friend’ and any other friendship a judge might have,” and that “Domville’s logic would require disqualification in cases involving an acquaintance of a judge.”  The Fifth District also noted that “A Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship.”

This is the legal landscape in which the Third District decided Herssein.  Preliminarily, the court recognized that merely being “friends” in the conventional sense has been historically insufficient to warrant disqualification of a judge.  It then latched onto the Fifth District’s statement regarding the closeness of Facebook “friends,” applying this rationale for three reasons:

  • “Some people have thousands of Facebook ‘friends,'”
  • “Facebook members often cannot recall every person they have accepted as ‘friends’ or who have accepted them as ‘friends,'” and
  • “many Facebook ‘friends’ are selected based upon Facebook’s data-mining technology rather than personal interactions.”

The Fifth District noted that Domville had been decided many years prior, in a quickly-evolving technological landscape–stated simply, times have changed.  It certified conflict with Domville, and denied the petition, holding that merely being Facebook “friends” with someone no longer demonstrates closeness of a relationship.

So where does that leave us practicing attorneys?

  • In the Third District, whether you are Facebook “friends” with a judge is irrelevant to whether your actual relationship is sufficiently close to warrant disqualification.  See Herssein.
  • In the Fourth District, being Facebook “friends” with a judge is sufficient on its own to warrant a disqualification.  See Domville.
  • The Fifth District’s dicta suggests it would side with the Third District, but it has issued nothing precedential upon which to rely.  See Chace.
  • Neither the First nor Second Districts have spoken on the issue.

Newsom Confirmed for Eleventh Circuit Vacancy

The Senate yesterday, in a 66-31 vote, confirmed Birmingham appellate attorney Kevin Newsom to fill the Eleventh Circuit vacancy left by the Honorable Joel Dubina when he took senior status in 2013.

Prior to his confirmation, Newsom was a partner with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Birmingham, where he served as chair of the firm’s appellate group. He formerly served as Solicitor General of Alabama. He is the Fifth Trump nominee to be confirmed by the Senate, and the first on the Eleventh Circuit. Check out Senator Shelby’s floor speech for more background on our new judge.

Second District Publishes Practice Preferences

The Second District Court of Appeals in October published on its website a brief but mighty Practice Preferences guide [.pdf] to assist parties in guiding their practice before that Court. The document includes three main sections: (1) Notices, Motions, and Records, (2) Briefs and Brief Writing, and (3) Oral Argument. The document is a mix of general appellate advocacy best practices and the specific preferences of this Court and its judges. Some of the most important practice tips:

Make jurisdiction easy to discern (See page 1, #1).

When filing a notice of appeal, include a copy of any tolling motion and the order granting or denying that motion, so the date of rendition is clear without having to look outside of the filing to determine jurisdiction.

No footnotes! (See page 4, #8).

The Second District will just take your footnotes out of the margin and pull it into the body of the brief to make it more readable for the judges. And whatever you do, don’t cite Bryan Garner style (sorry, Bryan). This Court hates that, and I have personally witnessed a Court sending a so-cited brief back to the party to re-file with inline citation.

Maximize Oral Argument (See pages 5-6).

Probably the most useful section of the Practice Preferences goes into detail about Oral Argument best practices: how to introduce yourself, answer the Court’s questions, don’t interrupt the judge, be conscious of your remaining time, know your record and briefs and law, and practice!

Whether you are in the Second District or any other Florida intermediate appellate court, the guide is a concise and helpful summary of some of the most common questions of appellate procedure and practice.