A Facebook friendship just doesn’t mean what it used to, an appellate court ruled Wednesday in a dispute over a Miami judge’s social media connection with a lawyer.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko won’t have to recuse herself from a case in which her former bench colleague and Facebook friend Israel Reyes appeared before her as an attorney, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled.
The decision differs from opinions issued by another Florida appellate court and a judicial ethics advisory committee. But that’s because times have changed, the judges wrote. In 2017, a Facebook friend probably isn’t really a friend.
“A random name drawn from a list of Facebook ‘friends’ probably belongs to casual friend, an acquaintance, an old classmate, a person with whom the member shares a common hobby, a ‘friend of a friend’ or even a local celebrity like a coach,” Third DCA Judge Thomas Logue wrote, with Judges Ivan Fernandez and Edwin Scales concurring. “An assumption that all Facebook ‘friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”
The North Miami firm Herssein Law Group moved to disqualify Butchko from presiding over a contract dispute against United States Automobile Association in which Reyes represents a nonparty USAA employee. The firm argued Butchko could not be impartial in a case involving Reyes, echoing the reasoning of a 2009 ethics opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee.
“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.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal relied on the committee’s logic in its 2012 Domville v. State opinion, which disqualified a judge from a case for being Facebook friends with the prosecutor.
But the Third DCA found the committee’s opinion just doesn’t jibe with today’s reality. Some Facebook friendships may represent a close relationship that warrants recusal, the judges wrote, but many don’t. Even a real-life friendship is not a basis for disqualification on its own, as rural judges would hardly be able to do their jobs if that were the case, the court wrote.
Reuven Herssein, who represents his firm in the case, said the Third DCA’s opinion “ignored the judicial canons — that judges are in a special position in our society and must avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
“With the opinion from the Third DCA today, judges everywhere in Florida except in the Fourth DCA do not need to recuse themselves when they are Facebook friends with a lawyer appearing before them on a case — something that the Domville court, which was binding on the trial court, and the judicial ethics opinions specifically prohibits,” he wrote in an email. “That, unfortunately, can lead to the erosion of public confidence in the judiciary. Given the conflict amongst the districts, which the Third DCA specifically acknowledged in their opinion, we plan to seek guidance from the Florida Supreme Court at the appropriate time, if necessary.”
USAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Butchko is prohibited from commenting on cases before her.