Judges Are Asking For More Advice

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Barry Schaller

Connecticut lawyers who wondered whether judges could use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter without violating judicial ethics rules recently learned something new.

In an informal opinion released earlier this year, the state Committee on Judicial Ethics opined that judges can in fact enjoy the professional benefits of social media, just like anyone else. But since sharing personal photos and comments on sites like Facebook is "fraught with peril for judicial officials," judges shouldn't get too personal.

Since it was created in 2008, the Committee on Judicial Ethics has met at the request of judges and magistrates who have concerns about what is permitted under ethics rules. The committee, made up of judges and one law professor, studies the issues in question, and provides formal and informal advisory opinions.

With more than two months still left in 2013, the committee has already been asked to weigh in on more ethics issues than it has in any other full year. For the first time ever, the committee was asked to weigh in on the growing influence of social media on the lives of jurists. In its informal opinion, the committee in June said judges should avoid being online "friends" with law enforcement officials, attorneys, or anyone who might appear in their court, because that contact could create the appearance of favoring one party over another. The ethics committee reminded judges that they should not post any material online that would suggest they favor any point of view or cause.

That means a judge shouldn't endorse, "or like" any commercial or advocacy website, be it on Twitter, LinkedIn, or anyplace else, the committee said.

As judges become more socially connected to non-judicial members of their communities than ever before, they are also subject to a growing body of opinion involving how they should conduct their lives out of work. The thread holding all of the ethics opinions together are the rules of judicial conduct. Those rules require judges to avoid the appearance of favoring one side over another, to uphold the decorum of the courts, and to treat their positions with respect.

The common theme in many of these ethical questions, "is whether outside activities inhibit a judge from performing" his or her core duties as a judge, said David Atkins of Pullman & Comley, whose work includes representing lawyers and judges in ethics violations matters.

New Judges

Retired Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Barry Schaller, who chairs the five-member ethics committee, said he's noticed the spike in requests for ethics opinions over the past year. The latest statistics show there have been 41 requests for advisory opinions so far this year, up sharply from the 34 requests that were made for all of 2012. In 2008, the year the committee was formed by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, there were 28 decisions.

Schaller offered one likely explanation for the rise in requests. Since 2012, there have been 23 new Superior Court judges appointed. The panel, he explains, typically sees more requests from new judges, because they want to make sure what they are doing is allowed under the rules. "There is an awareness of the committee being an effective way to do that," he said.

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