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Thoughts on Utah judge’s suspension for online interactions

I’ve written many times about the use of social media by judges. Generally speaking, I’m in favor of judges using social media and oppose arbitrary restrictions on their social media use. For example, I believe that judges should be permitted to be “friends” on social media with attorneys who appear before them and that doing so does not somehow affect their obligation to remain impartial.

That being said, due to the unique nature of their position, judges are understandably restricted from certain types of online behavior, just as they are when it comes to offline behavior. After all, as I’ve always said, the online is simply an extension of the offline.

So when I read that a Utah judge had been suspended for six months as a result of his online interactions, I was concerned. Then I read the opinion of the Supreme Court of Utah in In re: Inquiry of a Judge: the Honorable Judge Michael Kwan (online: https://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/Re%20Inquiry%20of%20a%20Judge20190522_20171041_19.pdf). Given the facts of this case, I agree with the Court’s decision.

In this case, it was alleged, among other things, that Judge Kwan had made a number of statements online regarding Donald Trump, both before and after the election. Notably, Judge Kwan had already been reprimanded in the past for making improper statements regarding candidates running for political office, with two separate informal opinions being issued by the Utah State Bar Ethics Advisory Committee regarding those incidents. His statements regarding Donald Trump were made after those opinions were handed down.

In the case at hand, Judge Kwan asserted that many of his postings were protected by the First Amendment as constitutionally protected speech. The Court declined to address that argument on procedural grounds, ruling that the judge failed to raise a constitutional objection at the time that the violation occurred, and thus cannot raise it for the first time during the disciplinary proceeding. The Court explained its rationale as follows:

“(W)e have required judges who fail to abide by laws or rules to put the public on notice that their violation is based on a principled contention that the law or rule is, itself, unlawful. Without such notice, a judge may appear to violate laws or rules at will, in disregard of the legal system they are charged with administering. And when judges appear to consider themselves above the law, public confidence in the fair.”

Even though the Court declined to reach his constitutional defense, it nevertheless limited its inquiry to a single posting that the judge himself acknowledged was improper and was not constitutionally protected: a statement that he made that indicated his opposition to a presidential candidate. Specifically, he posted the following in reference to Donald Trump: “Is the fact that the IRS has audited you almost every year when your peers hardly ever or never have been, something to be proud of? What does that say . . . about your business practices?”

The Court concluded that “the single online posting regarding then–presidential candidate Donald Trump, together with the other conduct Judge Kwan admits violated the rules, viewed in light of Judge Kwan’s history of judicial discipline, amply justify the sanction the JCC ordered and we implement.”

In reaching its decision, the Court focused on the role that judges play in our society and emphasized the importance of the appearance of judicial impartiality in fulfilling that role: “Conduct that compromises or appears to compromise the independence, integrity, and impartiality of a judge undermines public confidence in the judiciary.”

The Court also explained that upon accepting the responsibility of being part of the judiciary, judges do so with the understanding that they are henceforth obligated to act in a manner that upholds public confidence in the judiciary: “Fulfillment of judicial duties does not come without personal sacrifice of some opportunities and privileges available to the public at large. And as a person the public entrusts to decide issues with utmost fairness, independence, and impartiality, a judge must at times set aside the power of his or her voice — which becomes inextricably tied to his or her position — as a tool to publicly influence the results of a local, regional, or national election.”

I’m in full agreement with the Court’s decision. Certainly judges don’t leave their right to free speech at the door when they enter the judiciary. But their speech is necessarily limited somewhat due to the unique nature of their duties. Judges often have to walk a fine line in that regard, and sometimes they may unintentionally cross it.

But in the case at hand, that line was crossed far too many times in the past, and as a result the judge should have erred on the side of caution when interacting both online and off. He failed to do so and must now face the consequences.

Certainly we’re in the midst of a uniquely turbulent political landscape, and the immediacy and reach of social media can be an enticing way to voice ones views. But even so, it’s important to think before posting. And given their position, judges in particular must tread carefully when addressing political issues, lest they impermissibly cross that line.

Nicole Black is a director at MyCase.com, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book “Cloud Computing for Lawyers,” coauthors the ABA book “Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier,” and co-authors “Criminal Law in New York,” a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes three legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.

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