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Reader Asks: Is It Ethical For Judges to Tweet?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

One of our most loyal readers tweeted us with an interesting question: is it considered ethical behavior for judges to tweet?

It may seem like a strange question -- after all, Twitter is a communication medium, like email, blogging, and the like. Then again, we've seen at least one judge lose his job over forwarding naughty emails. Twitter could simply be a quicker way to shoot yourself in the foot.

Plus, it's easy to see the many ways Tweeting could get a judge in trouble. Inappropriate tweets, tweets that could be interpreted as evidence of bias, or tweeting back-and-forth with lawyers that appear in court or parties to a case are just a couple of hypotheticals that come to mind.

Not to worry though -- the ABA addressed the issue just last year [PDF].

Appearance of Impropriety

The governing principle, from the Model Code of Judicial Conduct [PDF], is avoiding impropriety or the appearance thereof. State-by-state and federal codes vary, but most follow a variation on that theme.

Appearance of impropriety, to paraphrase a cliché, is in the eye of the pissed-off litigant. Because of the subjectivity and importance of the maintaining the appearance of a fair and impartial judiciary, some states outright prohibit judges from being Facebook "friends" with those who appear in their courtroom.

A Twitter follow is a bit less serious, and less likely to be banned, though the ABA Ethics opinion notes that a judge should use his or her best judgment in deciding whether disclosure of the relationship is necessary.

Undisclosed regular back-and-forth tweeting with one party, or ex parte tweeting during a case, might create enough of an appearance of a relationship to open a judge (and the court system) to criticism. A litigant following or exchanging a fleeting tweet, years prior, almost certainly wouldn't.

Tweet Responsibly

Other tips provided by the opinion include not commenting on pending or impending matters and not offering legal advice via Twitter. In other words, use common sense.

Tweets get retweeted. Posts can go viral. Statements can be taken out of context. Vocal cues, such as sarcasm, are difficult to get across in 140 characters or less.

Speaking of Twitter, are you following us yet? C'mon. You know you want to.

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