Is it Unethical for Judges to be Facebook “Friends” With Lawyers who Appear Before Them?

As co-blogger Eugene Volokh notes, the Oklahoma Judicial Ethics Advisory Panel recently issued an opinion holding that it is unethical for judges to be Facebook “friends” with lawyers who appear before them. Back in 2009, I criticized a similar opinion issued by the Florida Judicial Ethics Committee:

At first glance, it might seem as if the opinion reflects a generational divide. The older members of the Committee may simply not understand how Facebook and other social networking sites work, and therefore don’t realize that a Facebook “friendship” doesn’t necessarily signal any kind of close relationship. Indeed, many Facebook friends don’t know each other in the real world at all…..

The problem goes deeper than that, however. As far as I know, both Florida and most other states don’t forbid judges to be real-world friends with lawyers who may appear before them. A judge who shows favoritism to a lawyer who is a personal friend may be sanctioned….. But the mere existence of a friendship between lawyer and judge is not considered to be a violation of judicial ethics in and of itself. So the Florida Committee’s approach actually treats Facebook friendship between lawyers and judges as a more serious breach of judicial etiquette than a genuinely close friendship between the two. I could understand the logic of a rule that forbade all social fraternization between judges and lawyers who might appear before them….. But I can’t understand the justification for a rule that bans essentially innocuous Facebook “friendships” but turns a blind eye to real friendships.