Representing the Child and her Guardian: Conflict of Interest?

On August 19, 2015, the New York State Bar Association issued a formal ethics opinion, which advises that an attorney who represents a child in Federal Immigration Court may also be competent to simultaneously represent the proposed guardian of the child in State Family Court proceedings. The opinion conducts a traditional conflicts of interest analysis to conclude that the representation is permissible as long as both parties provide informed written consent and the attorney reasonably believes he or she can competently and diligently represent both clients at the same time. While the opinion employs a traditional analysis, it also notes the unique issues that may arise when representing a minor in an immigration proceeding.

The opinion addresses conflicts of interest that may occur when a lawyer represents a child who is attempting to qualify for a deportation exception called the “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status” (SIJS). SIJS permits minors who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents in their country of origin and who are declared dependent on a juvenile court to obtain permanent legal status in the United States.

The procedure for obtaining SIJS in Federal Immigration Court proceedings includes the appointment of a guardian through Family Court. Although the proposed guardian and child often have a common goal, the child and guardian may have differing interests posing a potential conflict of interest for a lawyer representing both parties.  For example, the child may not want a guardian or may prefer another adult to be appointed as her guardian.

To obtain the child’s consent to the simultaneous representation, the lawyer must fully disclose the material risks and reasonably available alternatives. Then, the lawyer must believe that the child has the capacity to understand the conflict and make a reasoned decision to consent, and the consent must be voluntary. The opinion noted that there are opinions finding that a minor may not have capacity to consent and that there is no specific age at which a child may have such capacity; however, generally a verbal child who is twelve years or older will be capable to make a reasoned decision in this situation.

Click here to read the full text of the opinion.

If It’s Not “Real Time,” Is It Solicitation? Florida to Reconsider Rule on Prohibited Solicitation

In light of the Florida Bar’s recent decision to permit attorney advertising by texting, the Florida Bar Board of Governors will review amendments to Florida’s solicitation rule at its meeting on December 4, 2015.

The proposed amendments focus on the definition of “real time” contact to clarify that a lawyer may not solicit “in person.” The proposed amendment not only adds the “in person” language, but also further defines “solicit” to include: “by electronic means that include real-time communication face-to-face such as video telephone or video conference.” Thus, the language expands “in person” by prohibiting attorneys from contacting prospective clients through means such as Skype, Face Time, or Google Hangouts.

The proposed amendment  incorporates the recent  texting decision by removing both telegraph and facsimile from the language as well as the phrase, “includes any written form of communication, including any electronic mail communication, directed to a specific recipient . . . ,” from 4-7.18(a)’s definition for “solicitation.”

Some view the changes as a signal that the Florida Bar is attempting to adopt advertising amendments that embrace the digital age…

Read the proposed amendments to Rule 4-7.18(a) here.

Storing Client Data in the Cloud is Ethical, With Safeguards

On September 11, 2015, the Tennessee Supreme Court Board of Professional Responsibility confirmed in Formal Opinion 2015-F-159 that a lawyer may ethically allow client confidential information to be stored in “the cloud.” In doing so, the lawyer must take reasonable care to ensure that client materials remain safe and confidential.

“The cloud” is a remote location controlled by a third party that provides storage or other computing services. Rather than having information stored on a server or personal computer, access to cloud computing technology allows lawyers to transmit, process, and manage their client’s data from a remote location. One benefit of cloud computing technology is that the cloud service provider takes on the responsibility for new technology and software updates.

Because technology is constantly changing, lawyers must stay abreast of these changes and ensure that they continue to comply with the rules of professional conduct. It must be noted that this opinion does not mandate any specific practices that a lawyer must follow when using cloud computing technology. Rather, the opinion provides guidance to lawyers on how to exercise judgment when using cloud technology in order to remain compliant with the rules of professional conduct. For example, when using cloud computing technology a lawyer must abide by several Rules: Rule 1.1, which requires a lawyer to act competently; Rule 1.6, which requires a lawyer to take practical measures to protect the confidentiality and security of the client information stored in the cloud technology; and Rule 1.9, which states that a lawyer has a duty to former clients to not reveal any client information relating to the representation except as the Rules permit or require with respect to the client.

This recent opinion follows several other states that have provided commentary on cloud technology and what lawyers in those jurisdictions should consider. The opinion provides commentary on the subject by different states, including Florida, Kentucky, and Alaska.

Although cloud-based services are available for use by lawyers, reasonable care must be exercised when storing client information in the cloud to ensure that it is stored safely. If the client’s information is at risk, this cloud could rain on the lawyer’s head!

To read our other posts on cloud computing click here.

South Carolina: Linking Google AdWords to Opposing Party and Counsel Violates Legal Ethics Rules

A South Carolina attorney—who used Google AdWords to link his law firm’s advertisement to the names of an opposing party timeshare company and three attorneys associated with the timeshare company—was prosecuted by the South Carolina Bar for violations of South Carolina’s advertising rules and the Lawyer’s Oath contained in South Carolina Appellate Court Rule 402(k).

The attorney’s use of Google AdWords created a situation such that when an individual searched the Internet for the opposing counsel or the opposing party, there was a likelihood that the attorney’s law firm website would appear in the search results. The South Carolina Lawyer’s Oath pledges fairness, integrity, and civility in all written communications to opposing parties and their counsel.

The matter was settled when the attorney agreed to a public reprimand, the completion of a legal ethics course and payment of costs incurred in the investigation and prosecution of the matter. The South Carolina Supreme Court approved the settlement.

To read the public reprimand and opinion accepting the agreement, click here.

Federal Court: Florida Limitations on Advertising Specialization Are Unconstitutional

On September 30, 2015, a Florida federal court held that the Florida advertising rule that prohibits an attorney from truthfully stating that he or she specializes in a specific field of law is a violation of the First Amendment and therefore unconstitutional. The rules currently require that a lawyer may only claim a specialization or expertise when the lawyer has been certified under the Florida Certification Plan, or by an organization whose specialty certification program has been accredited by the American Bar Association or the Florida Bar; or the lawyer has been certified by another state bar if the state bar program grants certification on the basis of standards reasonably comparable to the standards of the Florida Certification Plan. The opinion explains that, “the state cannot prevent a person from advertising a lawful specialty, even if the state’s own definition of the specialty is different.”

The issue is one of several in the Searcy, Denny law firm’s suit against the Florida Bar. The claim partially derives from the fact that not every field of law has a board certification. Therefore, according to the Florida rule, an attorney who specializes in mass torts or unsafe products cases is not permitted to truthfully state that he specializes in these fields, because there is no board certification available.

Florida has some of the most detailed advertising rules in the country; however, the rule at issue is a common one.  It will be interesting to see whether other states amend their rules in accordance with the Florida opinion.

For more information on the recent decision, click here. To read the opinion click here.

Defining the Practice of Law: North Dakota Admonishes Minnesota Attorney for UPL

Does the title “staff attorney” define the practice of law? The Supreme Court of North Dakota believes so. In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court of North Dakota admonished a Minnesota attorney for, engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, in violation of N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 5.5(d) The attorney—who is barred in Minnesota—was working for a Minneapolis based law firm that also has an office located in Bismarck, North Dakota. The attorney relocated to North Dakota to function as a lobbyist and also to assist with the drafting of real estate title opinions.

In a press release, the law firm announced that they had hired five new staff attorneys and included the attorney among the five. Additionally, the attorney identified himself as a “staff attorney” when applying for admission to the North Dakota State Bar.

Relying on the 1998 Ohio case of In re Application of Stage, 692 N.E.2d 993 (Ohio 1998), the court highlighted the requirements for avoiding confusion regarding whether an individual is a licensed attorney in a state. The court held that individuals who are not admitted to that state’s bar may not use designations such as “General Counsel,” “Managing Counsel,” or “any other term implying [that] the individual is already admitted to the practice of law” unless the individual provides a disclaimer explaining that he or she is not licensed to practice law in that jurisdiction.

The respondent argued that the North Dakota Disciplinary Board failed to show that the out-of-state attorney actually practiced law while working at the firm because his activities of working as a lobbyist and assisting licensed attorneys with researching and drafting title opinions did not constitute the practice of law. However, the court rejected this argument, concluding that regardless of whether he actually performed work as an attorney Rule 5.5(d) makes it a violation to even represent to the public that the individual is admitted to practice law in the jurisdiction. Therefore, the violation occurred as a result of the firm’s press release, and by the attorney’s designation as a “staff attorney” in the state.

Thus, an attorney needs to make sure that his or her conduct does not constitute the practice of law in a state where he is not licensed. If an attorney is working in a state where he is not licensed, best practice for the firm and the attorney is to clearly disclose that the attorney is not a licensed attorney in that state. Such disclosures will serve to avoid allegations of the unauthorized practice of law.

For the full opinion click here.

Indiana Advisory Opinion on Reporting Child Abuse: Attorneys’ Obligations & Constraints

What happens when an Indiana lawyer learns, while representing a client, that a child is a victim of abuse or neglect? Must the lawyer make a report to the Indiana Department of Child Services or local law enforcement? The Indiana State Bar Association (“ISBA”) Legal Ethics Committee’s advisory conclusion is essentially, “it depends.”

In Formal Opinion 2 of 2015, the ISBA concluded that absent client consent, an attorney may not report information about suspected child abuse learned during a representation unless the lawyer believes it necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.” Notably, the ISBA cautioned that the Indiana Supreme Court is the final authority on both Indiana law and the professional conduct of Indiana lawyers.

Generally, under Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a), a lawyer may not “reveal information relating to representation
of a client . . . .” However, Indiana Code §§ 31-33-5-1 and 5 broadly require that any “individual who has reason to believe that a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect” to “immediately make an oral report to (1) the department [of Child Services] or (2) the local law enforcement agency.” Failure to report constitutes a Class B misdemeanor under Indiana Code §31-33-22-1(a). This broad statute does not exempt lawyers from the reporting requirement. As a result, there is a direct conflict between a lawyer’s ethical duty to keep silent and the apparent statutory duty to speak.

The committee expressed that constitutional, pragmatic and statutory reasons dictate that the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality is generally paramount over the general duty
to report. The committee reiterated that Indiana’s constitution gives the Indiana Supreme Court authority to regulate lawyers. This authority indicates that the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct, which are promulgated by the court, “control over conflicting legislation.” After determining that Rule 1.6 generally trumps Indiana’s child abuse reporting statute, the committee concluded that, unless the client consents to disclosure, the rule forbids the attorney to report any abuse that does not come within the exception in Rule 1.6(b)(1) authorizing the disclosure of information necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm.” Absent the client’s consent, mandatory reporting would undermine the “fundamental principle” that “the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation” because confidentiality is critical to encouraging clients “to seek legal assistance and to communicate fully and frankly” with lawyers.

Nevertheless, the committee held that lawyers must report information relating to child abuse or neglect if they believe it necessary “to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm,” regardless of the client’s wishes. However, a lawyer may not report information of lesser harm without the client’s consent.

Although ISBA noted that Formal Opinion 2 of 2015 is advisory in nature and does not have the force of law, it is important for lawyers to obtain as much information as possible prior to disclosing information regarding possible child abuse. If the attorney does not have information that would lead him or her to be reasonably certain that death or substantial bodily harm was going to occur, the attorney could be potentially violating the rules of confidentiality.

Click here to access the full opinion.

Discriminatory Organizations: To Participate or Not To Participate?

In Opinion No. 1 of 2015, the Indiana State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee addressed the extent to which Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g) limits a lawyer’s participation as a leader of a nonprofit organization that discriminates through membership requirements (e.g. on the basis of religion, gender, race, etc.). That rule prohibits lawyers from “engag[ing] in conduct, in a professional capacity, manifesting…prejudice” based upon certain types of characteristics. Several other states, including Florida, have an anti-discrimination clause in their professional conduct rules guiding attorneys.

The main hurdle with which the Committee struggled was the lack of guidance from the Indiana Supreme Court on the definition of “professional capacity.” The Committee first reviewed the six Indiana cases that have applied Rule 8.4(g) and then reviewed a number of cases in which lawyers were disciplined for conduct that was unrelated to the representation of a client. It found that although the rule encompasses conduct in the course of representing a client, the rule’s reach goes well beyond that.

Having established that the bounds of Rule 8.4(g) extend beyond actions taken in a representative capacity, the Committee next turned to the question of how far those boundaries go. After an analysis of both the New Jersey Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own version of Rule 8.4(g) and Indiana’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct, the Committee decided that the rule is meant to catch only such conduct where the lawyer’s status as a lawyer is a relevant part of his or her role and where the conduct was intended or likely to discriminate. Further, even in such cases, the attorney may still be protected from the rule’s application, depending on the nature of the organization. That is because, in some types of organizations, the constitutional freedom of association may apply. The Committee noted that typically, smaller, more intimate organizations have been afforded greater protections of associations, whereas organizations whose goals involve other recognized freedoms have been afforded such protections only in more stringent circumstances.

In short, the Committee concluded the following: (1) mere legal representation of such organizations—without making discriminatory comments—is not a violation of the rule; (2) participation in a personal capacity is not a violation of the rule; and (3) participation where status as a lawyer is connected to the participation and where the lawyer intends to personally participate in activities that advance discriminatory policies may be a violation of the rule, depending on the nature of the organization and the lawyer’s role in it.

Ohio Attorney Suspended for Lack of Cooperation

An attorney in Ohio whose license has been suspended since 2013 was reminded just how important it is to cooperate with disciplinary authorities while facing his third disciplinary hearing in three years.  Despite being cleared by the Ohio Supreme Court on the underlying charges, which involved the Board of Professional Conduct’s finding of the mishandling of a criminal case and related fraudulent statements to the court, the attorney nonetheless was sanctioned for his failure to cooperate.

The attorney’s failure to cooperate with the Board’s investigation was evidenced by the attorney’s failure to promptly respond to three letters of inquiry. He replied to the first letter several weeks after the stipulated reply date, and did not reply to the subsequent letters. The attorney defended his failure to reply to the subsequent letters by claiming that the questions in the subsequent letters were not relevant to the rule cited in the first letter. He also argued that he was given insufficient time to respond. The Court rejected the arguments after the attorney admitted he was aware of his duty to cooperate with the Board.

The attorney received a six-month suspension and was taxed with costs.

Read the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Slip Opinion here, and the Board’s Overview here.

Attorneys May Use Crowd Funding To Finance Firm Expenses

“Go-fund-me” and other crowd funding resources have been steadily increasing in popularity as a means to fund a variety of activities from serious business ventures to Cancun vacations. Typically crowd funding is used in product development as a means to test the market. It therefore requires a large group of people raising large funds for that purpose.

Because of the great success many projects have had in using crowd funding as a source for their operations, recent law school graduates have inquired about the feasibility of using this tool to start their own firm.

Most recent law school graduates desiring to start their own practice are facing a mountain of student loan debt. As a result, these graduates are reluctant to take out additional loans to finance their first months of operation.

Crowd funding is marketed as a creative solution to avoid creating additional debt, but attorneys old and young must keep in mind the potential ethical limitations. According to the New York State Bar Association in their June 29th opinion, two methods of crowd funding create clear ethical violations under Rule 5.4: the royalty and equity models. Consequently, there are only two crowd sourcing models from which an attorney can benefit.

The donation model appears to be the most promising. In this case an individual can essentially give money towards a venture with the clear understanding that their donation in no way entitles them to an interest in the business. There are no ethical limitations relating to this model, so long as attorneys make it clear to donors that they receive nothing in return for their donations. There are valid questions relating to how effective a tool this might be in garnering funds, but at the very least a lawyer does not have to worry about violating any codes of conduct.

The reward model is the second available option. In exchange for his donation, a donor would receive informational pamphlets that report the progress of the firm or the lawyers’ performance of pro bono work for a third-party non-profit legal organization. Attorneys who opt to use this model have to ensure that materials are only distributed for educational purposes (i.e. newsletters, blogs, or client alerts) so as not to trigger advertising sanctions under Rule 7.1.

Also, an attorney must avoid offering legal advice in distributed materials to avoid potential malpractice exposure. As it relates to the promise of performing pro-bono hours for a third party organization, an attorney must condition his agreement on being competent in the subject matter and not subject to a conflict of interest.

As a whole, crowd funding is not a perfect tool with which to establish a new private practice. Attorneys must ensure that investors do not receive a share in the law firm’s revenue or an interest in the firm. Nevertheless, for young attorneys, crowd funding can be considered at best as a colorful option to circumvent additional loans as they embark on their exciting careers. With that said, “Go fund me!”

To read full opinion click here.

Do Consultation Fees Create An Attorney Client Relationship?

On August 25, 2015 the North Dakota Supreme Court decided that a consultation fee alone does not form an attorney-client relationship; it is merely a factor that may indicate its creation. Alone, the fee creates only a potential client relationship with an attorney. Without this distinction, the attorney in Kuntz v. Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of North Dakota would have been in violation of North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.7 (Conflict of Interest) and Rule 1.9 (Duties to Former Client).

This case arose from a client, the father in a child custody matter, claiming his attorney violated her ethical duties. The client retained the attorney and later learned that approximately one year prior to commencing representation, the attorney had consulted with the child’s maternal grandfather, who had paid the attorney a $100 fee for the consultation. There was no further contact between the maternal grandfather and the attorney. The client felt there was a conflict of interest as the attorney had previously met with a family member of the opposing party for a consultation with respect to custody arrangements for the same child.

The attorney advised the court that she always charges a $100 fee for initial consultations, and in each meeting she makes clear to the potential clients that the consultation does not form an attorney-client relationship. Her notes from the meeting with the grandfather showed no exchange of legal advice or collection of confidential information, supporting the attorney’s assertion that she met her responsibilities under North Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.18 (Duties to Potential Client).

After reviewing the case de novo on the record and noting that violations must be established by clear and convincing evidence, the North Dakota Supreme Court found only a potential client relationship between the attorney and the grandfather despite the fee. As a result, Kuntz had not violated any conflict of interest rules. The court held that the “existence of a lawyer-client relationship depends on the particular circumstances of the case, including the conduct of the parties, the circumstances of the consultation, the nature of information exchanged, and any agreements between the parties.”

To read the full opinion, click here.

Taking a Menopause Jab at Opposing Counsel: A Definite “Don’t”

A U.S. District Court judge was unamused by a jab an attorney made at opposing counsel during litigation this past March. After a female attorney complained about the temperature in a room where 16 attorneys were participating in a deposition, a male attorney remarked aloud, “You’re not getting menopause, I hope.” After a motion for sanctions was filed against the attorney who made the offensive remark, the judge expressed his negative view of the offending attorney’s conduct.

The judge called the attorney‘s comment “discriminatory in nature.”

“Because menopause occurs only in women, and predominantly in middle-aged women…a comment suggesting that a woman may be menopausal singles her out on the basis of gender and age.”

The judge ruled that the attorney’s statement was a violation of ABA Model Rule 4.4 (Respect for Rights of Third Persons). “The public nature of [the male attorney’s] comment combined with the personal and private nature of menopause leads the Court to conclude that the comment was made to embarrass [the female attorney] and was not intended to serve any other purpose.”

Attempts to ridicule opposing counsel are unfortunately nothing new in the legal profession. Citing a 2015 ABA report, the judge noted that “inappropriate or stereotypical comments” made by opposing counsel are one cause for the under-representation of women in lead trial attorney roles.

Accordingly, the court decided that the violating attorney was to pay his opposing counsel’s reasonable attorneys’ fees of $1,000 for bringing the motion and complete a continuing legal education course on professional conduct.

For more information click here. To read the full opinion click here.

Emerging Technologies & EDiscovery: Redefining the Competent Lawyer

Future Law Office 2020, a report issued by Robert Half, contains a survey in which 350 attorneys were asked which issue would have the biggest impact on the practice of law in the next five years. Emerging technologies was the issue that garnered the most votes. Furthermore, 44 percent of the respondents identified eDiscovery as the main issue driving legal departments to work more closely with IT specialists.

Is your law firm up to speed on technology and eDiscovery? Emerging technologies are not only a trend, but also are becoming a matter of competence. In fact, recent sanctions imposed on the Defendants and their attorneys in a case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California reminds us of the legal implications of poor handling of eDiscovery. HM Elecs., Inc. v. R.F. Techs., Inc., 2015 BL 254876, No. 3:12-cv-02884-BAS-MDD (S.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2015).

In HM Elecs. Inc, the Plaintiff—a manufacturer of drive-thru headset systems—brought forth various claims against the Defendant—a repairmen of drive-thru headset systems—for trademark infringement and unfair competition and interference by the Defendant. During the course of the case, several discovery disputes arose, most notably related to the failure to properly and timely produce documents as required. The Plaintiff filed a joint motion alleging that Defendant intentionally withheld and destroyed highly relevant electronically stored documents (“ESI”), among other allegations.

The Court granted the Plaintiff’s request for reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred as a result of Defendants’ eDiscovery misconduct pursuant to Rules 26(g)(3) and 37, and for not paying close enough attention to the misconduct of its clients. The court sanctioned discovery practices by the Defendant such as (1) signing certifications of discovery stating that certain documents didn’t exist, even though they did; (2) attorneys did not property craft and implement a litigation hold; (3) emails were sent to employees instructing them to destroy relevant documents; (4) massive amounts of data withheld by the used of limited search terms; and (5) failure to produce more than 375,000 pages of electronically stored information (“ESI”) until after close of discovery due to vendor error.

Thus, failure to be proactive in acquiring competence in emerging technologies and specifically in eDiscovery may result in a costly lesson that not only takes a financial toll on a lawyer and his client, but also may tarnish the reputation and career of the lawyer.  In other words, being a technophobe is becoming risky business for lawyers practicing law in the digital age.

To read the survey, click here.

To read the opinion, click here.


To Err is Human: When Must a Lawyer Disclose an Error to a Client?

On July 17, 2015, the North Carolina State Bar Ethics Committee (“Committee”) issued a 2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 4, discussing when it is appropriate for an attorney to disclose potential malpractice to a client.

The opinion begins with an explanation of the distinction between professional malpractice and professional misconduct, the former being a lawyer’s error under the applicable standard of care, which could subject the lawyer to civil liability. The North Carolina Committee acknowledges that even a generally competent lawyer may make a mistake and then proceeds to analyze the responsibilities that ensue.

Relying on analysis from a Colorado Ethics Opinion and a New York State Ethics Opinion, the North Carolina Committee advises that the decision to disclose an error to a client is governed by an attorney’s duty of communication pursuant to Rule 1.4. The obligation of disclosure of an error depends upon where it falls on the spectrum of possible errors as well as the circumstances under which the error is discovered. With respect to the spectrum, errors range from those that are material and clearly prejudice the client’s interests, which should always be reported, to those that are easily corrected or negligible and do not need to be revealed to the client.

A mistake that falls within the grey area of the spectrum must be examined in terms of the attorney’s duty to keep the client reasonably informed about his legal matter. For example, if the error will result in financial loss to the client, substantial delay in achieving the client’s goals, or a significant disadvantage to the client’s legal position, the error must be disclosed. When in doubt about the duty to disclose, the Committee advises that it is best that an attorney err on the side of disclosure.

After making the decision to disclose, an attorney may retain representation of the client unless there is a Rule 1.7 conflict of interest issue. When disclosing the error to a client, the lawyer must candidly explain the important facts surrounding the error, including the circumstances under which it occurred and its effect on the lawyer’s continued representation of the client. The lawyer must not advise the client about a potential malpractice claim, but the lawyer can recommend that the client seek independent legal advice.

Judges on Facebook: Exercising First Amendment Rights or Violating the Judicial Canons?

There is no doubt that since the inception of Facebook in 2004, various other social media networks have sprung up allowing people to share and exchange information instantly. As of the second quarter of 2015, Facebook had nearly 1.49 billion monthly active users.[1] Originally a social networking website geared towards college students, Facebook has grown to market its services to people of all ages, backgrounds, and professional occupations. As social media continues to become a part of people’s everyday lives, many have predicted that this is a long-term trend that will be continuously refined so that people turn to interacting and behaving online as they do in their everyday lives. But with this dependency on online social networking comes potential consequences that can affect many groups of people, including the legal profession.

The American Bar Association reported in its most recent Legal Technology Survey that about 62% of law firms maintain social networks. This can include, for example, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In fact, 78% of individual lawyers maintain one or more social networks, and spend on average 1.7 hours per week using these sites for professional purposes.[2]

But what about in the courtroom? Is it ethical for a judge to use social media to comment and express his or her opinion on a case unfolding in the judge’s courtroom? Unfortunately for one District Court judge in Texas, Facebook updates about a trial over which she was presiding resulted in a reprimand by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

This story began during the criminal jury trial of State v. David M. Wieseckel, which was held in Judge Michelle Slaughter’s court. The defendant, Wieseckel, was charged with unlawful restraint of a child for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a wooden enclosure.

Judge Slaughter’s social media saga began a few days before the commencement of the trial when she posted on her Facebook page: “We have a big criminal trial starting Monday! Jury selection Monday and opening statements Tues. morning”. However, it wasn’t until after the first day of testimony when Judge Slaughter posted several comments on her Facebook page that ethical issues allegedly emerged.

The following are the Facebook comments that led defense counsel to file a motion to recuse Judge Slaughter from the case:

“Opening statements this morning at 9:20 am in the trial called by the press ‘the boy in the box’ case.”

“After we finished Day 1 of the case called the “Boy in the Box” case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6”x 8’ box inside the courtroom!”

“This is the case currently in the 405th!” [This post included a link to a Reuters article entitled “Texas father on trial for putting son in a box as punishment”].

The issue raised about these comments was that the box to which she referred had not yet been admitted into evidence at the trial.

As a result of these comments, defense counsel filed motions to recuse Judge Slaughter from the case and for a mistrial and she was removed from the Wieseckel case. The case was transferred to another court and the judge in that court granted the defendant’s motion for mistrial. Judge Slaughter’s behavior was criticized on social media despite her argument that she made her comments with the intention of promoting transparency and to encourage individuals to come watch the proceedings.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) did not share the Judge’s perspective. After considering the relevant standards of judicial conduct, including Canon 3B(10) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct and Canon 4A, the Commission concluded that Judge Slaughter’s comments “went beyond providing an explanation of the procedures of the court” and instead “highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced at trial”. Further, the Commission stated that “Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the case”.

On April 20, 2015, the Commission issued a Public Admonition and Order of Additional Education to Judge Slaughter requiring her to obtain four hours of instruction, with a mentor and in addition to her required judicial education, on the proper and ethical use of social media by judges.

Judge Slaughter appealed the sanction to a special court of review based upon First Amendment claims. On July 20, 2015, Justice Charles Kreger of the 9th Court of Appeals, Justice Gina Benavides of the 13th Court of Appeals, and Justice John Bailey of the 11th Court of Appeals heard arguments and evidence in the trial de novo. The crux of Judge Slaughter’s argument is that this particular proceeding is going to chill the exercise of the right to free speech as the matters that occur within the courtroom are of public concern. The Court of Appeals has not yet issued its decision.-This case is a prime example of the tension between the First Amendment and the judicial canons that may arise when the judiciary engage in social media however well-intentioned.


[2] American Bar Association, 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report, available at