Facebook Friendship Not Proof of Judicial Bias

     DALLAS (CN) – A judge’s social media relationship with the father of an assault victim did not affect his impartiality or neutrality regarding the assailant’s conviction, a Texas appellate court ruled.
     A three-judge panel with the Dallas-based 5th District Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of William Scott Youkers on May 15.
     Youkers appealed his eight-year prison sentence and revocation of community supervision for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. He was on parole at the time for a previous felony conviction of tampering with evidence and pleaded guilty to the assault charges.
     He later appealed, arguing the trial judge abused his discretion in denying a motion for new trial.
     Youkers asked for a new trial by challenging the judge’s neutrality, describing his Facebook friendship with his girlfriend’s father – which continued through the pendency of Youkers revocation hearing — and email messages the judge received from the plaintiff’s community supervision officer.
     The judge had testified at the hearing on Youker’s motion for new trial that he knew the victim’s father because both ran for office during the same election cycle. He also testified that other than private messages on Facebook, they had no other contacts on the social media site.
     “The Facebook communications began with a message from the father to the judge seeking leniency for Youkers,” stated Justice Mary Murphy, writing for the panel. “That message was posted just prior to Youkers’s original plea. The judge responded online formally advising the father the communication was in violation of rules precluding ex parte communications, stating the judge ceased reading the message once he realized the message was improper, and cautioning that any further communications from the father about the case or any other pending legal matter would result in the father being removed as one of the judge’s Facebook friends.”
     Murphy continued, ” …The judge’s online response also advised that the judge was placing a copy of the communications in the court’s file, disclosing the incident to the lawyers, and contacting the judicial conduct commission to determine if further steps were required. The father replied with a message apologizing for breaking any ‘rules or laws’ and promising not to ask questions or make comments ‘relating to criminal cases’ in the future.'”
     Indeed, Murphy concluded, a Facebook friendship alone provides no insight into the nature or depth of a relationship.
     “Merely designating someone as a ‘friend’ on Facebook “‘does not show the degree or intensity of a judge’s relationship with a person,” she wrote. “One cannot say, based on this designation alone, whether the judge and the ‘friend’ have met; are acquaintances that have met only once; are former business acquaintances; or have some deeper, more meaningful relationship … Further context is required.”
     Murphy noted the evidence of the judge and father running for office at the same time and the father’s communication about the trial provide no insight into a relationship that would lead to bias or partiality by the judge.
     “The judge also acted in full compliance with the Texas Committee on Judicial Ethics’ recommended procedure for treatment of ex parte communications,” she wrote. “A reasonable person in possession of all of the facts in this case likely would conclude the contact between the judge and the father did not cause the judge to abandon his judicial role of impartiality; besides the evidence that the judge and the father’s acquaintance was limited, any appearance of bias created by the Facebook communications was dismissed quickly by the judge’s handling of the situation.”
     Murphy wrote that even if the father made improper statements to Youker’s mother about influencing the judge, the evidence contains does not show the judge was aware of such a statement.
     The panel also disagreed with Youker’s complaint of bias being created by the community supervision officer’s ex parte email messages to the judge. The officer informed the judge of his “poor character” before the probation hearing, among other things.
     “The judge added the statement (about which Youkers complains) that he believed he was ‘making a mistake and it should be a bigger number”; he was giving Youkers two years less than the maximum sentence ‘in the hopes that [Youkers] use [his] intelligence to realize that [he’s] got to fix these things and not keep trying to fix them to the minimum to where people stop watching [him]. Because the moment [he is] unwatched, [he] is untrustworthy,” Murphy wrote.
     “The evidence supports the judge’s comments, which do not reflect bias, partiality, or the judge’s failure to consider the full range of punishment.” The panel also rejected Youker’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, concluding he did not miss the opportunity to accept a plea offer because he chose not to accept it, not because he was unaware of it.

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