A North Miami law firm is fighting to have a judge removed from a case for being Facebook friends with a lawyer who appeared before her.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko is publicly linked on the social networking site with Israel Reyes, a former colleague from the bench. Reyes, now the managing partner at the Reyes Law Firm in Coral Gables, entered an appearance on behalf of a nonparty in a case before Butchko.
The Facebook friendship means Reyes can “influence” Butchko, who therefore “cannot be impartial,” argued Reuven Herssein, founding member of Herssein Law Group, in a motion to disqualify Butchko. She declined to recuse herself, saying the motion was legally insufficient.
The fight is now before the Third District Court of Appeal, where attorneys are debating the ethics of judicial social media use nearly a decade after the state first addressed judges’ Facebook friendships.
Florida has relatively strict guidelines on social media connections, compared with other states. A 2009 opinion from the Florida Supreme Court’s judicial ethics advisory committee said judges should not send or accept social media friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them.
“The committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a judge’s social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer ‘friends’ are in a special position to influence the judge,” the committee wrote, recognizing that a social media “friend” may be nothing more than a distant acquaintance.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the opinion in a 2012 decision disqualifying a judge in a criminal case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor. The court found the social media connection could “create in a reasonably prudent person a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”
But United States Automobile Association, the defendant in the case filed by Herssein Law Group, argues the Fourth DCA decision doesn’t apply here. While a criminal defendant might reasonably fear bias in this situation, Herssein and his firm are more sophisticated than that, USAA’s counsel argued.
“No reasonably prudent Miami lawyer has a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because two judges who sat on the bench in Miami-Dade County are ‘friends’ on Facebook,” wrote Shutts & Bowen attorneys Patrick Brugger and Frank Zacherl of Miami, who did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Herssein declined to comment.
Reyes, who did not respond to a request for comment, represents a USAA employee in the case who retained separate counsel after Herssein Law Group accused her of witness tampering. Herssein told the court it plans to add the employee as a defendant.
Butchko declined to comment, as the case is pending. A Facebook search turns up a number of other Miami-Dade judges whose profiles list lawyer “friends.” The judicial ethics advisory opinion applies only to pages established by the judge in question, which would exclude campaign sites created by a committee.
Eleven states have issued guidance on judicial social media use, according to the National Center for State Courts. Florida’s guidelines are among the most restrictive, with states including California, Kentucky and New York opining that judges can accept Facebook friend requests from lawyers who may appear before them under certain conditions.
In California, judges may add lawyers on Facebook if their pages are used only for professional activities, such as interacting with members of a law school alumni group. Other factors include how many friends the judge has, whether he or she declines some attorneys’ friend requests but accepts others and how often the attorney appears before the judge.