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Out of Order on Facebook: Judge Reprimanded for Online Discussion of Case

By Caleb Groos on June 02, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A North Carolina judge has been publicly reprimanded by the state's Judicial Standards Commission for his online activities relating to a case before him. His misdeeds? "Friending" the defense counsel and discussing the case with him online plus doing extra-curricular online research regarding the plaintiff. Though judges (if foolish enough) can now do it online via Twitter, Facebook or whatever comes next, these are examples of long standing no-no's for judges: "ex-parte" communications and doing independent research about cases before them.

What's one way to have a child custody order vacated? Show that the judge "friended" the other side's lawyer and discussed the case on Facebook. The case in question was a child custody dispute before North Carolina District Court Judge B. Carlton Terry Jr. He presided over it last Fall, until his online activities came out, he had to disqualify himself, his decision was vacated and a new trial ordered, as reported by WXII Winston-Salem.

According to the public reprimand, the fiasco began innocently enough -- the judge in chambers with both plaintiff's and defense counsel chit-chatting about Facebook. Though plaintiff's counsel said she did not know what Facebook was and had no time for it, the judge and the defense attorney apparently had plenty of time for it.

They proceeded to "friend" each other, allowing each to see what the other posted on his Facebook page. Judge Terry saw defense counsel's post asking how he could prove a negative (that his client didn't have an affair, which generally should not be considered in a custody dispute). Defense counsel also posted that he had a wise judge (very subtle, this one). The judge himself posted that he had two good parents to choose from. The two also posted (with the judge responding to defense counsel's post) about how long the trial would last.

Is that so wrong? Yes -- it's what's called ex-parte communication, which is heavily frowned upon by the rules of judicial ethics. Ex-parte communications happen when a judge communicates with one side's attorney to the exclusion of the other side, or communicates with a third party about the case. They also happen when a lawyer communicates with another party outside the presence of their attorney.

One other thing judges are not supposed to do -- their own research outside of the evidence presented to them. Judge Terry ran afoul of this rule by surfing the website of the plaintiff. The fact that he'd done so became apparent when he chose to quote from one of her poems (with a few changes) while announcing his decision. Poetic, yes. Wise... not so much.

The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission found Judge Terry's activities prejudicial to administering justice and likely to bring disrepute to the judicial system.

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