The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld a judge who pulled the plug on a warring couple’s Facebook fights.
A three-judge panel this week rejected arguments by the husband that a Monroe County Superior Court judge violated his free speech rights by prohibiting both spouses from communicating with each other via social media.
The appeals court turned aside all of the husband’s points that he was treated unfairly in the Middle Georgia county court, despite claims — from Facebook, of course — that his wife benefitted from an ex parte discussion with the judge.
James Lacy posted on the social media site that Emily Lacy couldn’t buy her way to victory. She wrote: "that’s what you think[,] judge Parrott and my Dad has a meeting the week before our case and guess what you lost your kids," according to his appeal brief.
The Lacys sued each other for divorce last year, and the case has drawn the attention of four judges, at least two recusal demands and the police.
In the underlying case, James Lacy seeks to reverse rulings prohibiting contact with his children. The Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, rejected that request as well as demands to recuse the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
Atlanta attorney Randall M. Kessler, the former chairman of American Bar Association’s family law section, said the opinion written by Judge Christopher J. McFadden gives new guidance to parties in a divorce in a new era of technology.
"The ruling approving the trial court’s restrictions on the use of social networking sites is groundbreaking," said Kessler, who is not involved in the Lacy case. "We all assumed courts likely had this authority given the broad discretion usually allotted judges when considering the best interests of children but it’s nice to have some appellate law."
Kessler said he can give his clients advice to abstain from trashing estranged spouses "with some case law behind it."
"Facebook is the new megaphone," he said. "It sounds like the judges are catching up with society."
Through posts on James Lacy’s Facebook page, he and his ex-wife attacked each other. "The minor children do not need to see any bad blood that the parties can spread before the world," Emily Lacy’s appeal brief said.
At one point, according to James Lacy’s appeal brief, he addressed Emily on Facebook, saying, "You can’t keep on buying everything [.] People are finally paying attention and looking at you and your family."
Besides predicting victory based on her father’s discussion with the judge, according to James Lacy’s brief, Emily Lacy also wrote to her husband’s Facebook site, "you will never be able to prove how much I drink and how much cocaine I did[.] [T]hose are sealed records at [the] Athens rehab."
There is an account in the appellate decision of an incident in which a police officer smelled alcohol on Emily Lacy’s breath shortly after she had been driving with the children, but she did not appear intoxicated.
James Lacy, according to the appeals decision, told his children that to pay the court-ordered child support, he would have to sell all of his possessions, move out of state to get a job and would not get to see them.
In upholding one of several judges’ decisions to award primary physical custody of the children to Emily Lacy during the pendency of the divorce, Judge James L. Cline Jr. ordered the couple to stop talking to each other on social networking sites. Cline also enjoined James Lacy from contacting his three children through social networking sites. That amounted to a gag order in violation of the First Amendment, James Lacy said in his appellate filing.
Judge Christopher J. McFadden wrote for a unanimous panel, "We have not found any authority specifically addressing the issue of restricting parents’ behavior on social networking websites during a divorce and child custody proceeding. But our Supreme Court has held that a trial court can require the parties in a divorce proceeding ‘to refrain from making derogatory remarks about the other before the children.’"
"Likewise, it has upheld findings that parties in divorce proceedings were in contempt for violating orders that restrained them from behavior including telephoning the other’s workplace or communicating with each other," McFadden added. Presiding Judge Anne E. Barnes and Judge Carla Wong McMillian concurred.
The court rejected James Lacy’s appeals except to reverse an order that he pay a portion of Emily Lacy’s attorney’s fees.
The court also scorched James Lacy for attacking judges in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit in his appeals briefs.
James Lacy had called Chief Judge William A. Prior Jr., who refused to grant custody to Lacy, "Uncle Bill" in his appellate brief. Prior’s son is married to Emily Lacy’s aunt, according to the appellate decision. He then recused himself voluntarily because his son was a witness, the appeals decision said.
James Lacy sought Prior’s recusal and later claimed that Judge John Lee Parrott, alleged on Facebook as having discussed the case with Emily Lacy’s father, should have recused himself, too. Parrott last year resigned shortly after hearing motions in the Lacy divorce amid a Judicial Qualifications Commission ethics investigation. The investigation was about his alleged use of his office for personal gain and was not related to the Lacy case, said JQC director Jeff Davis.
He said this week he couldn’t talk about this case, but the JQC code would prohibit ex parte communications about litigation between a judge and a party.
Eventually, James Lacy sought to recuse the entire Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
"Plaintiff is no longer surprised, but he is both shocked and especially disturbed that Georgia Superior Court Judges elected to preserve their personal interests at the expense of both the judicial process and the best interests of the children involved in this case," the appellate brief said.
The appeals court took a dim view of Lacy’s tone and words.
"This Court’s rules forbid the disparaging personal remarks that the father has made in his briefs," McFadden wrote. "While we have not sanctioned the father for this behavior … we take this opportunity to comment that the father’s failure to present his arguments in compliance with this Court’s rules has done nothing to advance his cause and has hindered our resolution of these appeals."
James R. Oxford of Greensboro, who represented James Lacy, said Wednesday, "I intended no disrespect to any members of the Judiciary when I made the arguments that are in Appellant’s briefs filed with the Court. But, perhaps I was too aggressive in the representation of my client."
Oxford did not say whether his client would challenge the appeals court ruling.
Brenda Holbert Trammell of Madison, who represents Emily Lacy, moved to dismiss the appeal on the grounds the state Supreme Court has jurisdiction, not the lower appeals court. She lost that motion and one for attorney’s fees claiming the husband brought a frivolous appeal. The court said it has jurisdiction because the divorce is pending.
Trammell had no comment.
The case is Lacy v. Lacy, No. A12A2262.