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Florida ethics panel urges judges to unfriend lawyers from their Facebook pages

TAMPA — Since signing up for Facebook, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas has accumulated 280 friends. He estimates that maybe a dozen or so of those people are lawyers and only a handful regularly appear before him in court.

Folks in the latter group, be warned: The judge may soon unfriend you.

He doesn't really want to, but the state Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee opined last month that such friendships on social networking sites give the impression that a lawyer is in a position to influence a judge.

Though judges can't isolate themselves entirely from the real world or be expected to avoid all friendships, they must avoid the appearance of impropriety, the committee said.

Barbas isn't convinced that virtual friendships convey any special relationship. Still, the ruling has him and other judges taking a closer look at their friend lists.

"I don't think it's surprising to anybody in the public that lawyers know judges," he said. "I live in society, I operate in society. People know me, and I know people."

In close-knit courthouse circles, the lines between attorneys and judges are hardly black and white. Lawyers contribute to judicial campaigns. Judges hear cases argued by lawyers they once practiced alongside or have known for years. Judges disclose the connections in open court and sometimes remove themselves from a case if they are too close to the players.

Social networking sites have added a potential new dimension to those relationships. Thomas McGrady, chief judge for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, said he could see how a member of the public might worry about appearing before a judge who is Facebook friends with a lawyer on the other side of a case.

"There might be a concern that they would get a fair hearing," McGrady said.

He doesn't have a Facebook account, but "I'm glad they gave us some guidelines."

Under the guidelines, judges can remain friends with nonlawyers and lawyers who do not appear in their court. Lawyers practicing before a judge who is seeking re-election may, however, list themselves as "fans" or supporters of that judge's candidacy.

Not everyone on the ethics advisory committee agreed with the Facebook restrictions for judges. A minority of the group contended that the term "friend" on social networking sites conveys that the person is merely a contact or acquaintance, not someone with influence on the judge's decisionmaking.

Judges are not bound by the ruling but tend to follow the committee's advice.

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who hears criminal cases in Pasco County, dropped 82 friends on Friday.

A former prosecutor in Pinellas County, he defriended past co-workers, fraternity brothers, people he'd known since high school — even a woman whose son is in his daughter's first-grade class. She's a civil attorney in Pinellas and isn't likely to appear before Siracusa.

"Unless I get transferred to civil," he reasoned. "So I dropped her, too."

He went a step further, shedding all law enforcement officers on his friend list, figuring they pose the same conflict.

The ethics decision got him thinking about real, not just virtual, friendships in his professional life. Lunch with the public defenders and prosecutors from the Dade City courthouse, attorney friends who attend his family Christmas party. He's not changing those invitation lists, though.

"Not until I'm told to," he said.

In Tampa, attorney Chris Griffin is one of Barbas' Facebook friends. A commercial litigator, he doesn't appear before Barbas, who presides over dependency cases.

Though he initially considered the Facebook opinion an overreaction, he says he supports anything that might enhance citizens' belief in the integrity of the judicial process.

If he gets unfriended by a judge, Griffin said, "I would completely understand it and would applaud the person for doing what they did."

Barbas was weighing Monday whether to clean out his friend list in light of the opinion. Beyond the philosophical debate, he had a purely practical question.

"How do you unfriend somebody?" he asked. "And do I get in trouble if I can't figure it out?"

Times staff writer Molly Moorhead contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Florida ethics panel urges judges to unfriend lawyers from their Facebook pages 12/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 11:06am]

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