On their own time, state judges are experimenting with social media such as Facebook, according to a new survey. But judges doubt that that they could use the new media tools in their professional lives without violating judicial ethics codes.
Those are the findings of a survey conducted by the Conference of Court Public Information Officers conducted in June and released Aug. 26 following a recent meeting of the group, which represents spokespersons for state and federal courts.
“Judges appear to be adopting and accepting new media at about the same rate as the general population,” said Christopher Davey, director of public information for the Supreme Court of Ohio, and co-author of a conference report on new media and the courts. “But they are being very cautious, very mindful of the canons.”
Forty percent of the judges who responded to the survey said they use social media sites. Most of those use Facebook and most are judges who stand for election. Fewer than 9% of non-elected judge use social media sites, the survey indicated.
Some elected judges have used the sites to interact with voters, said Davey, but most use them the same way other adults do, namely “to connect with their grandkids.”
Still, close to half of the judges responding disagreed with the notion that they could use social media sites in their professional lives without violating ethics rules. Several state judicial ethics bodies have adopted rules prohibiting judges from “friending” on Facebook the lawyers who appear before them.
Almost all who responded agreed that judges and court personnel need to familiarize themselves with new media. But a very small percentage of courts — fewer than 7% — use the social media sites for official purposes, such as alerting the public or the press to newly issued rulings.
The Tennessee court system has been on Twitter for more than a year with nearly 900 followers, according to spokeswoman Laura Click. “It’s a great way to communicate with the public,” she said, “It’s generated a great deal of interest.” She said the Tennessee Supreme Court was quick to embrace the idea when she proposed it, and a YouTube channel is in the works.
Judges are also expressing concern about the use by jurors and other trial participants of Twitter and other sites, which may mar the public perception of fairness.
Earlier this month, according to an Associated Press report, a juror in Michigan was dismissed — and may face contempt charges — for proclaiming the defendant’s guilt on her Facebook page, before the defense phase of the trial had begun.
The report notes that the Judicial Conference has adopted suggested jury instructions to be used in federal courts admonishing jurors not to communicate with anyone about the case they are considering through phones, blogging, texting, or other devices.
Davey said the report is “the beginning of a process” to help courts come to terms with new media and new ways of reaching the public. “Over the last 20 years or so, there has been a cultural shift, and there is more support for that view that building trust and confidence in the courts involves some engagement with the public and the media.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.