Grappling with the meaning of online friendship, a state appeals court Wednesday rejected a request to disqualify a Miami-Dade County circuit judge from a case in which a lawyer is one of the judge’s Facebook friends.
The 10-page decision by the 3rd District Court of Appeal is at least the third time Florida appellate courts have faced similar questions, including a 2012 ruling in which another appeals court ruled that a judge should be disqualified because of being a Facebook friend with a prosecutor.
In Wednesday’s case, a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal pointed to issues such as data mining and networking algorithms and concluded that “a `friend’ on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word.”
“To be sure, some of a member’s Facebook `friends’ are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty,” said the decision, written by Judge Thomas Logue and joined by judges Ivan Fernandez and Edwin Scales. “The point is, however, many are not. A random name drawn from a list of Facebook `friends’ probably belongs to casual friend; an acquaintance; an old classmate; a person with whom the member shares a common hobby; a `friend of a friend;’ or even a local celebrity like a coach. An assumption that all Facebook `friends’ rise to the level of a close relationship that warrants disqualification simply does not reflect the current nature of this type of electronic social networking.”
The decision rejected a disqualification request by the Herssein Law Group, which had sued a former client, United Services Automobile Association, for alleged breach of contract and fraud. As part of the case, the law firm accused a company executive of witness tampering, and USAA hired Israel Reyes, a former judge, to represent the executive.
The Herssein firm in June went to the appeals court seeking to disqualify Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko from the case because she is a Facebook friend of Reyes. The firm raised concerns about receiving a fair and impartial trial, but Butchko declined to recuse herself.
In Wednesday’s decision, the three-judge panel acknowledged that its refusal to disqualify Butchko conflicted with the 2012 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal. It also noted, however, that the 5th District Court of Appeal in a 2014 case “signaled disagreement” with the 4th District Court of Appeal.
The panel said “electronic social media is evolving at an exponential rate.”
“Acceptance as a Facebook `friend’ may well once have given the impression of close friendship and affiliation,” Logue wrote. “Currently, however, the degree of intimacy among Facebook `friends’ varies greatly. The designation of a person as a `friend’ on Facebook does not differentiate between a close friend and a distant acquaintance.”