By Carlyn Kolker
Think before you 'friend'
Last fall, Summary Judgments attended a conference on judicial
ethics; when the topic turned to what role judges could play on
Facebook and other social networking sites, the room fell
silent, the tap-tap of the thumbs on Blackberries halted and
dozens of judges tensed up.
We've all felt the tug of getting a "friend" request we
didn't know quite whether to accept or not. But what happens
when you are a judge and that potential "friend" is a litigant
who appears before your court? Or one who is appearing before
you right now? That's more than a social dilemma - it's an
In an ethics advisory opinion dated December 28 and released
on Thursday, the Massachusetts Committee on Judicial Ethics said
that while judges can certainly keep accounts on Facebook or
other social networking sites, they can't have friendships with
lawyers and litigants who appear before them. "In terms of a
bright-line test, judges may only `friend' attorneys as to whom
they would recuse themselves when those attorneys appeared
Advisory opinions are typically issued when a judge has a
question about a specific situation that may pose ethical issues
and asks his or her fellow judges to weigh in. They're not
binding; however, judges tend to listen to the recommendation of
Five other states have issued ethics advisory opinions about
judges' roles on social networking sites, according to Cindy Gray of the American Judicature Society. Some permit judges to
be "friends" with litigators who appear before them; others do
Florida caused a mini-uproar in judicial circles in November
2009 when its ethics advisory committee said that judges' online
Facebook friendships with litigators who may appear before them
creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. Some judges
pleaded with the committee to lighten up; but the ethics
committee didn't budge.
California has taken a confusingly compromised approach,
saying that judges can be friends with lawyers who "may" appear
before them - but not who have pending cases. Meanwhile, Ohio,
New York and Kentucky are more permissive. They allow judges to
be "friends" with litigators who appear before them, but caution
that they must follow the same judicial conduct guidelines that
apply to them in the so-called real world.
"Social interaction between a judge and a lawyer is not
prohibited," the Ohio opinion, dated December 2010, states.
"Yet, a judge's actions and interactions must at all times
promote confidence in the judiciary."
Gray, who heads the Judicature Society's Center for Judicial
Ethics, says that Ohio, New York, California and Kentucky have
all gone through some lengths to qualify how judges must conduct
themselves judiciously on-line.
"Even the opinions that say it's OK for the judge [to be
friends with litigants]don't seem terribly enthusiastic about
it," said Gray. "It's clearly something that judges should be
Georgia has a "two-headed" appellate system that must be
overhauled, state Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias told a
roomful of lawyers, according to the Augusta Chronicle. Because
of quirks in Georgia state law, the Georgia Supreme Court hears
many cases, such as certain divorce and property disputes, that
the intermediate appeals court does not hear. Georgia's appeals
courts are among the busiest in the nation, Nahmias maintains;
the Georgia Supreme Court hands down about 350 opinions a year.
In contrast, Summary Judgments notes that the U.S. Supreme Court
typically hands down about 75 opinions. Bottom line: those
Georgia justices are busy folk.
Two Courtney Love posts in one week! Who knew the rocker
could be the subject of such legal notoriety?
On Thursday Summary Judgments told you how Courtney Love
helped contribute to a pivotal moment in social media history
when she defended a defamation suit over Twitter posts. Today,
we bring to you news that she triumphed in a lawsuit by her New
York landlord over $54,000 in back rent. A New York County
Housing Court judge ruled that Love was properly paying her rent
under the latest rental agreement.
Quite some legal bills Love must be racking up over time.
John Paul Stevens goes on Colbert
We told you we would bring you any urgent breaking news on
the two-year anniversary of Citizens United, one of the most
important Supreme Court decisions of our time. And if this isn't
urgent breaking news, we don't know what is: former U.S. Supreme
Court Justice John Paul Stevens appeared on The Colbert Report
on Thursday night to discuss his dissent in the 5-4 Citizens
Sure, Stevens has done the media circuit since he retired
from the bench and released his memoir, Five Chiefs. But an
interview with comedian Stephen Colbert is something precious
indeed; Colbert has launched a so-called Super PAC - the kind of
vehicle of unlimited campaign donations that Citizens United
blessed - and is exploring a run for "President of South
Carolina." (Huffington Post has put together a five-part series
this week on Colbert's extreme case of
On the show, Colbert calls Stevens "a quitter," talks him up
about the Supreme Court basketball court, and makes him opine on
the Citizens United opinion in ten words or less. Check out the
interview for yourselves.
Pro bono legal help via a public school
A 35-year-old public high school history teacher with a law
degree runs a free legal clinic at his Chicago school - one of
the best places to reach lower-income clients, the Chicago News
Cooperative, via the New York Times, reports. The Chicago Law
and Education Foundation runs on a $3,000 budget, nearly all of
which came from a grant from a community group. The clinic
refers some cases to other pro bono organizations, and also
assists with everything from domestic abuse to loan modification
cases. "This is a way of bringing legal services to where poor
people are - in the schools," clinic founder Dennis Kass says.
Shouts out to Citizens United
It was two years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court
issued its landmark 5-4 ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, which
loosened restrictions on corporate and union spending in
elections. The ruling, of course, will be felt acutely in 2012,
a presidential election year. To start your Friday, here is a
round-up of some reactions to the ruling; We will update with
any newsworthy additions throughout the day.
-About two dozen people protested the decision at the Iowa
statehouse, the Associated Press reports, carrying signs
decrying the influence of money in politics.
-Maryland Congressmen Christopher Van Hollen and John
Sarbanes want a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling,
the AP reports. "Sarbanes admits it won't be easy," the AP
writes, in a bit of understatement.
Writing in Politico, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a
Washington-based group that aims to cut down on money in
politics, says the decision is already "wreaking havoc" on the
presidential election season. Wertheimer says that organizations
are secretly contributing "hundreds of millions of dollars" in
campaign-related spending and that so-called Super PACs, which
advocate for a particular candidate, are serving as "vehicles to
circumvent and eviscerate" campaign limits on individuals.
Wertheimer supports disclosure laws that would require groups to
reveal their spending, treating the Super PACs as arms of the
candidates they support and replacing the Federal Election
Commission with a "real" enforcement agency.
-A Republican Arizona state legislator has introduced a bill
in that state to require companies and unions to disclose the
source of the money they use to make contributions, according to the Tucson Sentinel. There are similar bills in California,
Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont, the paper says.
Summary Judgments for Jan. 19
Summary Judgments for Jan. 18
Summary Judgments for Jan. 17
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