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Defendant Youkers was sentenced to an eight-year prison term. Youkers thereafter filed a motion for a new trial alleging that the judge who sentenced him engaged in improper communications and was not impartial. In particular, the father of Youkers’s girlfriend was one of the judge’s Facebook friends. The father also sent a message to the judge about Youkers’s pending case. Despite these potentially alarming facts, the judge testified that he knew the father because they both ran for office during the same election cycle. The judge testified that a mere Facebook friend designation was the extent of their relationship. Upon receiving the message from the father, the judge told the father that such communication was improper and he notified the appropriate individuals. To make Youkers’s allegations even weaker, the father was actually seeking leniency for Youkers. The court notes that the American Bar Association (ABA) has said in formal opinions that judges are not barred from using social media. Merely designating someone as a friend on Facebook “does not show the degree or intensity of a judge’s relationship with a person.” ABA Standing Comm. On Ethics & Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. 462 (2013). Accordingly the court concluded that the mere fact that the father and the judge were Facebook friends, by itself, did not suggest bias or partiality. The court concluded that there was no evidence of actual bias. Furthermore, because the judge fully complied with the Texas Committee on Judicial Ethics’ recommended procedure for treatment of ex parte communications, a reasonable person would conclude that there was no appearance of impropriety. Had the judge not followed state procedure on the treatment of ex parte communications, things might have gone differently. Judges should be very careful about all their communications and relationships over social media. Although in this case there was no communication between the judge and the father besides the father’s message and the judge’s response, a court might be willing to find bias if there was an ongoing relationship. Although a mere Facebook friendship alone does not establish anything, other communications over Facebook might have the effect of tending towards partiality. Rocco Seminerio is a 2014 Seton Hall University School of Law graduate. Mr. Seminerio focused his studies in the areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, and Health Law. He graduated from Seton Hall University’s undergraduate program in 2011 with a degree in Philosophy. He is also interested in the life sciences.
PRESIDENT, AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION 2012 – 2013 Laurel Bellows, a principal of The Bellows Law Group, P.C. in Chicago, represents executives in the United States and internationally. Laurel is an experienced business lawyer counseling senior executives and corporations on employment matters, employment and severance agreements, executive compensation and workplace disputes. Her expertise in executive compensation matters also includes mid-level management compensation and benefit plans, and matters involving incentives, pensions, retirement and workforce restructuring. Laurel Bellows is currently president of the American Bar Association. Her one-year term as president began at the conclusion of the ABA Annual Meeting in August 2012.Continue Reading