California judges who are using social media platforms should be cautious about posting their thoughts on the legal system or the administration of justice, a judicial ethics committee said recently. In a nine-page advisory opinion, the Caifornia Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions warns that Twitter, Facebook and other online outlets are laden with potential “ethical pitfalls” for bench officers, who are required by canons to avoid the appearance of bias.
The option begins with this.
Judges may use social media to make statements relating to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice, but should consider the following when posting or engaging with others online: (1) the same standards for judicial communications that apply in face-to-face settings apply with equal force to online statements and social media posts; (2) due to lack of control over the dissemination and permanence of online statements, judges must exercise caution and restraint and should assume the widest possible audience; (3) while statements concerning the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice are generally permissible, judges may not engage in prohibited social or political commentary on social media; and (4) judges must carefully evaluate what they intend to post and continually monitor their social media communications and posts to ensure public confidence in the integrity, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary.
Social media has become a pervasive form of communication and socialization in daily life. Social media is commonly used to share information, network, connect with friends, and express opinions. Judges are no exception to the popularity of social media. (Epps & Warren, Resisting Shiny Trinkets in This New Digital Age: Judicial Interaction with Media Platforms (Aug. 2019) 58 Judges’ J. 28, 30 [as of 2016, surveys showed that approximately 40 percent of judges use social media]; Cal. Judges Assn., Jud. Ethics Com., Advisory Opn. No. 78 (2020),p. 3 (CJA Opn. No. 78) [observing that more and more judges are expected to engage in social media over time].)
With social media permeating nearly every aspect of personal and professional life, it is understandable that judges have questions regarding how to use social media without violating the California Code of Judicial Ethics. In general, social media is governed by the same rules that govern statements made in any other context. However, there are certain ethical pitfalls associated with social media, such as the loss of control over and permanence of statements, that distinguish it from other forms of communication. For guidance, the committee provides the following standards and cautions concerning the use of social media to express opinions related to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.