Sometimes legal professionals put adherence to ethics aside when discussing their day or their mood on social media. Aside from confidentiality issues, there are many other reasons for attorneys to stay away from the likes of Twitter and Instagram when they want to vent about having a bad day at work.
The case of San Bernardino’s Deputy District Attorney Michael Selyem has become a cautionary tale. Last July, Selyem shared a series of offensive posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, using improper and disrespectful language to refer to Rep. Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama, and Mexican immigrants. An investigation ensued, and Selyem was placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of the probe.
In 2017, Judge Nancy Hohengarten of Travis County posted on a friend’s wall on Facebook: “I’ve had the worst cold but instead of staying home I’m being tortured by an attorney in a trial. So, I’m actually jealous of you!”
Court records revealed that at the time of sharing that post, Hohengarten was overseeing a DUI trial. The defendant’s lawyer was not at all pleased. “Her decision to make that post during trial is eye-popping,” the attorney told reporters, “It’s disrespectful, it’s unprofessional and to top it all off, it’s unethical. It violated my client’s constitutional rights to a fair trial before a fair and impartial judge.”
What Hohengarten’s case shows us is that even the most innocent posts can cause controversy and result in serious reputation damage or disciplinary action.
For Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it was actually social media posts from her past that came back to haunt her. When Bader Ginsburg said in 2016 that she would consider moving to New Zealand if Trump won the presidential election, she never thought she was going to be taken so literally two years later.
Now, Trump supporters are demanding that she actually move to New Zealand, because, “the word of a member of the U.S. Supreme Court should be as good as gold.” Of course, Judge Bader Ginsburg is being attacked on social media, because these are, in the end, powerful tools that can easily turn against you.
Whether you are an attorney working in the private sector, a career prosecutor, or a judge, you are expected to pick each word that comes out of your mouth very carefully, and the same applies to your smartphone or computer.
To learn what you can and cannot say on social media, you may check the National Center for State Courts’ Judicial Ethics Advisory on Social Media.