Can judges be “connected” with lawyers on LinkedIn? According to the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, the answer is a qualified “no.” See Opinion 2012-12.
This isn’t the first time Florida’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee dealt with the issue of judges’ use of social media and interactions with lawyers. In a 2009 opinion, the same Committee ruled that it was not permissible for a judge to approve a lawyer who may appear before the judge as a “friend” on a social networking site such as Facebook.
The specific question before the committee in the LinkedIn inquiry was: “Whether a judge may add lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘connections’ on the professional networking site, LinkedIn, or permit such lawyers to add the judge as their ‘connection’ on that site?”
The inquiring judge summarized his proposed distinction between a Facebook friend and a LinkedIn connection by stating:
LinkedIn is designed for business and professional networking, and offers a profile and options to network in a business sense. Facebook, on the other hand is designed more to connect family members and personal friends. As an example that illustrates the difference, when a person wants to know where an old colleague is working now, they would use LinkedIn; when they want to find out if that same colleague is married and if they have kids, they would use Facebook.
The Committee determined that a judge can post information on Facebook and LinkedIn, but it is “the process of selection of ‘friends’ or ‘connections’ by the judge, and the fact that the names of those ‘friends’ or ‘connections’ are then communicated — often, but not always, selectively to others — that violates Canon 2B, because by doing so the judge conveys or permits others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.”
A close reading of the opinion is necessary since the opinion expressly states that it should not be interpreted to mean that the inquiring judge is prohibited from identifying any person as a “friend” on a social networking site. Instead, it is limited to the facts presented by the inquiring judge, related to lawyers who may appear before the judge. The opinion does not apply to the practice of listing as “friends” persons other than lawyers, or to listing as “friends” lawyers who do not appear before the judge, either because they do not practice in the judge’s area or court or because the judge has listed them on the judge’s recusal list so that their cases are not assigned to the judge.
The committee considered a California opinion which concluded that it is permissible for a judge to accept a lawyer as a Facebook “friend” or LinkedIn “contact” if that lawyer may appear before the judge. The California committee further concluded that a judge may not approve the lawyer, or have a lawyer as a friend or contact, if the lawyer has a case pending before the judge. The Florida committee deemed that approach to be too difficult to administer, as it “contemplates a judge constantly approving, deleting, and reapproving lawyers as ‘friends’ or ‘connections’ as their cases are assigned to, and thereafter concluded or removed from, a judge.”