CSG Law Alert: Judges, the Perils of Social Media, and Lack of Candor

It’s estimated that almost 90% of the judges in the United States are elected. In New Jersey, they are not, with the exception of the County Surrogate, a quasi-judicial position with jurisdiction over Probate cases. Elected judges tend to be on social media more than non-elected judges, probably due to campaign demands.

The Passaic County Surrogate has become embroiled in ethics charges over her appointment of a Facebook friend to administer an estate over the objection of the decedent’s family. Contrary to the wishes of all the heirs, the Surrogate chose her social media friend, a former co-worker of the decedent, over the only relative who had applied. At the time of the appointment hearing she only disclosed she knew the appointee. She did not disclose that she had known him and his family for three decades, they grew up in the same neighborhood, the appointee had helped her with her last campaign, he had attended political fundraisers for her and that they were Facebook friends. A Superior Court judge overturned the appointment and the ethics investigation commenced.

When initially asked about the relationship by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the disciplinary arm of the Supreme Court, the Surrogate attempted to minimize her relationship with the appointee, stating “he was not somebody I’d call to talk to on the phone”. That statement was contradicted by an examination of her cell phone records which showed in the six months preceding the appointment hearing, she made at least six telephone calls to him from her personal cell phone and exchanged approximately 63 text messages with him. A 23 minute cell phone conversation and 22 texts occurred during the three month period between his application and appointment.

This lapse in judgment can’t totally be blamed on social media, though. The Facebook friend status is exacerbated by the lack of candor and the misleading attempts to minimize the relationship. Judges have been disciplined and criticized for “friending” lawyers, jurors and litigants. Lawyers have committed similar lapses in judgement. Networking and campaigning for office may require a social media presence;  transparency is the antidote. In the Matter of Surrogate Bernice Toledo, ACJC No. 2019-189, filed December 23, 2019.

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