Private posts can risk public punishment for U.S. judges who take to social media to express their views on controversial or political issues.
The spring edition of the Judicial Conduct Reporter from the National Center for State Courts gave examples of U.S. judges who have been punished for their commentary on social media about controversial or political issues. Discipline resulted from both public and private posts by judges, their responses to and reposts of memes, their comments on the posts of political figures and more.
“The cases demonstrate that this type of social media commentary is broadly restricted for judges regardless of privacy settings or whether their judicial position is evident,” wrote Cynthia Gray, the report’s author.
Gray said Facebook has been the platform for virtual judicial misconduct so far, but the report’s analysis would apply to other social media as well.
Private post, public reprimand for Minnesota judge
The Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards publicly reprimanded Judge Matthew M. Quinn, who serves the state’s Seventh Judicial District, for his actions on Facebook in support of President Donald Trump. Quinn was tagged in photos on Facebook showing him wearing a MAGA hat and piloting a boat with Trump flags during the Trump Boat Parade on the Mississippi River in September. He also commented on and liked a number of Trump’s Facebook posts, including one Trump wrote about a Wisconsin rally.
According to the Judicial Conduct Reporter, the board noted that even though Quinn’s Facebook page was private, approximately 70 of his friends are lawyers and judges, and they could see his activity. After notification of the investigation, Quinn deactivated his Facebook account and said his conduct had been “imprudent, indecorous and contrary to the spirit of the Canons.”
West Virginia judge ignores disciplinary warning
A West Virginia judge also received a public admonishment for her negative Facebook comments about a Wisconsin pharmacist who has pleaded guilty to destroying multiple doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The state’s Disciplinary Counsel told Judge Sally G. Jackson that her comments violated the prohibition on public comments about pending cases, even if only her family and friends could view her page.
The counsel reminded Jackson that she had been asked to take down other posts and told her an ethics investigation would be opened if she continued posting inappropriately. Jackson didn’t heed the warning.
The complaint said she repeatedly posted stories and comments about the siege at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, including this string of comments about Derrick Evans, a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates who had been charged with federal crimes related to the riot:
- Facebook friend: As the video ends, Evans shouts “Our house! And then, “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m following the crowd.” What is he? 12?
- Respondent: [Name] that is very disrespectful . . . to 12-year olds!
- Facebook friend: It sad, but I’m glad he was [arrested]. No one is above the law!
- Respondent: [Name] it’s not sad!
- Facebook friend: It’s sad that delegates or any elected official would do this is what I mean. I’m not sad he was arrested. I’m sad and mad about what they all did!
- Respondent: YES
The Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against her, and she deactivated her account. The report said she apologized and said she was embarrassed by her actions.
Texas judge reprimanded for posting genocide meme
A Texas judge received a public reprimand for posting comments “railing” against liberals and a meme endorsing the “extermination of Muslims,” according to the report. In 2017, Judge Daniel Burkeen wrote a Facebook post that said:
“Do the morons claiming Trump is another Hitler not know who Hitler was? I realize liberals have not been much blessed with brains, but surely they can figure out that Hitler was a SOCIALIST. It was the National Socialist Party. He was one of you! His goals were your goals.”
In response to the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct’s investigation into his comments, he acknowledged the posts were inappropriate and had “tacky and insulting” wording. He said he would not have shared the meme if he thought it was an endorsement of genocide and realized he shouldn’t have posted it.
Conflicting ABA guidance on judicial conduct on social media
According to the report, the American Bar Association has written a contradictory advisory opinion about how much judges can say on social media. Formal Opinion 462 permits judges to privately express their views on political candidates but also emphasizes that judges should assume comments posted on social media will not remain in the circle of their connections.Follow @WLJReporter