When you become a judge, must you give up your "friends"?

According to a recent ethics opinion issued by the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee, you need not give up your friends before donning a judicial robe.

Asked by one Maryland judge whether a conflict of interest would exist if one Facebook "friend" appeared before another, the Committee advised members of the judiciary to "proceed cautiously" on social networking sites, but noted

that there is no rule prohibiting judges from having what traditionally has been thought of as “friends,” be they attorneys or laypersons. Indeed, in order to become a District Court, Circuit Court, or appellate court judge in this state, one must be a member in good standing of the Maryland State Bar. In the vast majority of cases, members of the Bar become judges after years of working in the legal profession and establishing personal relationships with others in that profession. Attorneys are neither obligated nor expected to retire to a hermitage upon becoming a judge.

Thus, while judges "must be circumspect in all of their activities, and sensitive to the impressions such activities may create," the "mere existence of a friendship between a judge and an attorney does not, in and of itself, disqualify the judge from cases involving that attorney."

Although the Committee saw "no reason to view or treat 'Facebook friends' differently," judges may need to disclose the existence of such a relationship in court.  Quoting a comment to a rule relating to judicial impartiality, the Committee emphasized that a "'judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification.' A personal relationship with any of the attorneys or parties might be included in such information."

In short, when it comes to the judicial use of Facebook and other social networking sites, it is the message that matters -- not the medium.