Earlier this year Judge Michelle Slaughter of Galveston, Texas, posted what she described as publicly available information about cases she had or was handling to her official Facebook account as a part of a campaign to make court proceeding more open and transparent to the public, (for one story click here). The judge argued that all she had done was present and post publicly available information on her profile to educate the public.
The defense in one case where a father is accused of caging his child (a crime that if proved is of course deplorable but the accusation of which does not take away the right to a fair trial) disagreed and alerted the courts system to posts the judge had made of both exhibits before they had been admitted into evidence and news articles describing the case. The court decided to remove the judge and it took the new judge less than a day to declare a complete mistrial in the case.
This case and the judge’s behavior raise two immediately recognizable issues. The first of these is the idea that the judge as a public figure could by her actions be tampering with or poising the jury pool. By posting information about her cases on a public form, including outside commentary in the form of media reports, the judge stood a huge risk of herself tampering with the jury pool when her posts on a case appear before jury selection had begun. The second huge issue is of course that she also raises a huge risk of appearing partial to one side or another based on what and how she posts.
The judge herself seems to think her actions were permissible and several media outlets reported on her judicial Facebook page (which now appears to have been taken offline), that the judge distinguished between her role as judge and the jurors. Slaughter is said to have posted "Something many people don't understand is that in a jury trial, judges are not in the same role as jurors. Judges see and hear everything and decide what gets to go to the jury for their decision." While that is true, the judge seems to have missed the point that judges and jurors are both equally not allowed to provide information or commentary (which she clearly did at the very least by posting media accounts of the case and can easily have been argued to have done by the other posts based on her captions or presentation) on the cases they are working on.
In the rapidly changing landscape of social media and juries, judges are the last line of defense in the struggle to ensure the fairness of the jury process, which is why this case is all the more disheartening. Thankfully Judge Slaughter’s fellow members of the judicial bar were able and willing to step in to ensure the fairness of the judicial process in those cases where Slaughter’s social media use may have interfered with the right to a fair trial.