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Social Media Not Necessarily Good for Jurors, Lawyers and Judges

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There have been quite a few stories coming out about people in the legal world saying and doing some pretty ridiculous things online, landing themselves and/or their clients in hot water.

For example, a juror in a criminal case recently got to see the other side of a criminal trial when she posted a message on Facebook stating that she believed the defendant was guilty, and that it would be fun to convict him. This happened before the prosecution and defense had rested their cases. The juror had to be removed from the case, and replaced with an alternate juror (typically, two “alternate” jurors are selected in addition to the actual jurors. They observe the entire trial, as a juror would, but do not get a vote unless an actual juror has to be removed, for whatever reason). The defendant was ultimately convicted.

That’s one way to get out of jury duty, I guess.

Unfortunately for this juror, she’s likely to face a citation for contempt of court, which could mean hefty fines and even a few days in jail.

This seems illustrative of a trend that many observers have noticed, especially in the younger generations – shifting attitudes towards privacy. Some people make their lives open books: if you follow their Twitter, or are friends with them on Facebook, you can learn almost everything about them – you can see their pictures from a party the night before, you can read what’s on their mind at any given moment, and you can learn who they’re dating, and the status of their relationship. You probably know at least one of these people. If you don’t, you should probably take a good look at your Facebook page, and make sure you aren’t one of them.

Besides the problem of jurors who have no filter between their brains and computer keyboards, like the person discussed above, judges and lawyers are finding that they have to balance the need for the many useful aspects of the Internet in general, and social networking in particular, with ethical concerns.

This can raise major issues, such as possible conflicts of interest, risks to client confidentiality, and embarrassments to the legal profession as a whole. Perhaps as a result of these concerns, a study discussed in the National Law Journal suggests that about 40% of judges in the U.S. use social networking sites like Facebook. However, almost all of those judges were elected rather than appointed, meaning that when judges use social networks, they use them to campaign. Only 9% of appointed (not elected) judges reported every using Facebook.

While most people agree that the court system needs to become more tech-savvy than it currently is, one has to wonder if it’s a good thing for individual judges to be active on social networks. I’ve blogged before about judges and lawyers getting themselves into trouble. You may remember the post I just linked to – a few months ago a judge was caught participating in the comments on a news website covering a case she was presiding over, expressing her personal opinions regarding the defendant’s guilt or innocence. This got her into quite a bit of trouble, for obvious reasons.

Considering that people from judges to jurors are vulnerable to online indiscretions, it makes sense that so few judges use social networking sites for ANY purpose, let alone in any official capacity. And of the judges who do use Facebook, they appear to use it for the same purposes as other people their age: playing Farmville and keeping in touch with their kids/grandkids.

Of course, there’s another side to this issue. I’ve also blogged in the past about how our court system should embrace technology, and I still stand by that opinion. One of the hallmarks of an effective justice system is efficiency (though there are obviously many more essential elements), and technology can play a huge role in that. This includes using social networking sites to keep the public informed about the goings on of the judicial system, and to publish opinions in high-profile cases. Courts in some countries have even used Facebook for service of process, when other methods of contacting the defendant fail.

As usual, our judicial system will have to find a balance between embracing technology, and making sure that it’s used responsibly. Also, legal professionals all know that words, whether written or spoken, sometimes have consequences. They should remind themselves that the Internet isn’t some magical realm where this principle doesn’t apply.

Ken LaMance

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