New Mexico Supreme Court cautions judges to avoid impropriety and appearance of impropriety on social media

The New Mexico Supreme Court cautioned judges to “avoid both impropriety and its appearance in their use of social media”.

Although the case concerns an asserted violation of the Confrontation Clause, it is interesting because Defendant also raised the issue of social media posts made by the district court judge during the pendency of the trial. The posts, made on the Facebook page used for the election campaign of the judge, discussed defendant’s case. During trial, the district court judge posted, “I am on the third day of presiding over my ‘first’ firstdegree murder trial as a judge.” After trial, but before sentencing, the district court judge posted, “In the trial I presided over, the jury returned guilty verdicts for first-degree murder and kidnapping just after lunch. Justice was served. Thank you for your prayers.”

Defendant argued that social media posting by the district court judge demonstrated judicial bias.

Even though the New Mexico Supreme Court didn’t have to decide whether social media posts would have required reversal and it didn’t held that judges are prohibited from using social media, it did caution that “friending, online postings, and other activity can easily be misconstrued and create an appearance of impropriety. Online comments are public comments, and a connection via an online social network is a visible relationship, regardless of the strength of the personal connection”.

The opinion (nmsuprcrtJune 20, 2016) provides several guidelines, such as:

  • avoid not only actual impropriety but also its appearance;
  • act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary;
  • judicial election campaigns sites shall be established and maintained by campaign committees, not by the judicial candidate personally. See ABA Standing Comm. on Ethics & Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. 462 (2013). Candidate should post no personal messages other than a statement regarding qualifications;
  • do not post public comments, nor engage in dialogue, especially regarding any pending matters that could either be interpreted as ex parte communications or give the appearance of impropriety;
  • make use of privacy settings to protect online presence;
  • consider any statement posted online to be a public statement and take care to limit such actions accordingly;
  • understand how the Code of Judicial Conduct may be implicated in the technological characteristics of the social media in order to participate responsibly in social networking.

 

State v. Thomas, 2016-NMSC-024, 376 P.3d 184, 2016 N.M. LEXIS 149 (N.M. 2016) is available at http://www.nmcompcomm.us…                                   Open PDF

For more information, Francesca Giannoni-Crystal

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