Judge’s Facebook Friendship Challenged in Texas Criminal Case

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas joins a small number of appellate courts to opine on the propriety of a judge’s use of Facebook. (Click here to see our post on a recent Florida decision.) The court found that a judge’s Facebook friendship with the victim’s father in a criminal case and the father’s attempt to engage the judge in an ex parte communication on Facebook failed to establish grounds for a new trial where the judge had refused to respond to the father, had reported the contact to both parties in the case and filed a copy of the communication in the court file.

In the Texas case, William Scott Youkers was sentenced to eight years in prison for assaulting his girlfriend. Youkers filed a motion for a new trial based in part upon the trial judge’s Facebook friendship with his girlfriend’s father and a communication on the social media site between the two men. The girlfriend’s father had sent a message to the judge asking the judge to be lenient in sentencing Youkers. The judge responded to the message by explaining that it was an impermissible ex parte communication and that he would not engage in such a discussion with the father. The judge informed the parties and filed a copy of the Facebook exchange in the court file. Youkers’ motion for a new trial,based partially upon this evidence, was denied by the trial court. Youkers appealed the denial of a new trial.

The appeals court affirmed the denial of a new trial and ruled that the friendship was permissible in this case because the judge and father had no special relationship in real life and the judge refused to respond to the father’s communication, choosing instead to file the communication in the court file and inform the parties.  The court cited the recent ABA Opinion 462 concerning judges on Facebook (see our prior post about the opinion here) and Judge Gena Slaughter and John G Browning’s article, Social Networking Do’s and Don’ts for Lawyers, in support of the proposition that judges should not be entirely prohibited from using social media sites. However, the court was quick to point out that judges should always remember their duty to remain unbiased and impartial.

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