Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko/Photo by J. Albert Diaz/ALM Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko/Photo by J. Albert Diaz/ALM

In a dispute about whether a Miami-Dade County judge should be disqualified from a case, Florida Supreme Court justices grappled with a basic, but seemingly complicated, question: Are Facebook friends different from other types of friends?

And more specifically, should a judge step away from a case when a lawyer for one of the parties is her Facebook friend — even though judges and lawyers might be friendly in other settings?

Justice Peggy Quince said the issue focuses on where to “draw the line.”

“When I go out to lunch with someone, isn’t that a public acknowledgment that we have some kind of relationship?” Quince asked attorney Maury Udell, who was arguing that Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko should be disqualified from a case because of a Facebook friendship with a lawyer.

Udell represents the Herssein Law Group, which has been locked in a legal battle with a former client, United States Automobile Association, about attorney fees and alleged fraud and breach of contract. The law firm sought the disqualification of Butchko because she was a Facebook friend with attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent a company official in the case.

Butchko refused to step aside, leading the Herssein Law Group to take the issue to the Third District Court of Appeal. After losing at the appeals court, the Herssein Law Group went to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the issue.

Udell said he wasn’t arguing “judges can’t be on Facebook.” But he pointed to the need for judges to avoid an appearance of impropriety, which could influence whether people think they are getting fair trials.

“Just don’t be Facebook friends with lawyers who appear in front you,” he said. “It goes back to the word I came up [with] in the beginning [of Thursday’s arguments] — which is optics. It just doesn’t look right.”

Some justices, however, repeatedly returned to the issue of whether Facebook friendships are different from other types of friendships that judges might have with lawyers. They also raised scenarios about people having numerous Facebook friends, some of whom they might only know casually or not at all.

“It seems to me that the reality of Facebook friendship is that Facebook friends frequently are friends of a friends of a friend of a friend of a friend. It’s this network, and it extends out,” said Justice Charles Canady, who noted he is not on Facebook. “And so the idea that somehow participating in that networking arrangement somehow establishes the kind of relationship with anybody who happens to come into it that would result in disqualification just is not consistent with what our case law has said about traditional friendship.”

Udell focused, in part, on opinions by the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and the Fourth District Court of Appeal that conflicted with the ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal in the Butchko case.

But Suzanne Labrit, an attorney for USAA, said the Third District Court of Appeal properly ruled that “the fact that a judge is Facebook friends with a lawyer for a witness or a potential party, without more, does not provide a basis for disqualification.”

Labrit also said the Supreme Court must assume that judges will follow judicial-conduct standards and handle cases impartially.

“We can’t have a system that operates based on the suspicions of, sort of, the outliers,” she said.

But that drew a response from Justice R. Fred Lewis, who said the court system needs parameters in which judges operate. He questioned why “bright lines” should not be drawn related to the use of Facebook.

“If all judges were saints, then we wouldn’t be having all the cases that we have coming over from the JQC,” Lewis said, referring to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which handles disciplinary cases. “And they’re coming over on a weekly basis, my friend.”

Jim Saunders reports for the News Service of Florida.