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Judging Facebook

June 29, 2020

Here’s a sentence you don’t expect to see in an appellate ruling: “Judges are people too.” Who knew?

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

Here’s a sentence you don’t expect to see in an appellate ruling: “Judges are people too.” Who knew?

Actually, they might not be people since the sentence is from a dissent in 4-3 ruling from the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on whether a judge’s ruling in a custody dispute should be reconsidered because the judge got friended on Facebook by the mother in the case.

Was the judge just being a polite person (that is, people like the rest of us) or was he programmed by his new “friend?”

The facts, as described in the ruling, are a tad suspicious. It seems the judge accepted a Facebook friend request from the mother after the custody hearing but before he ruled. The mom then liked a bunch of the judge’s posts and shared other people’s posts about domestic violence — one of the issues at her hearing.

Hmm. Seems like someone got microtargeted. I don’t know whether it worked or not — but the mother won and then posted a message on Facebook saying she’d “be bouncing off” the forum now.

Mission accomplished.

Judge Bitner

Three years later, the judge’s friendship becomes the subject of a very-divided state supreme court arguing over whether the judge noticed his friend, whether it mattered, and/or whether it looked bad. The 77-page document included separate opinions from five judges.

Social media does weird things to people. It’s hard to get people to agree on anything.

I won’t take sides here but there are some things to think about in all this.

The first is why anyone goes on Facebook at all. Criminals get caught there. Insurance claims get thwarted. Judges and lawyers get into trouble. Spouses find out where you really were. And on top of all that you have to wade through photos of other people’s gardens and food and animals and vacations.


And who are all these “friends” and how did I get them? To my astonishment, I discovered I have 90 so-called friends on Facebook. I don’t know that many people.

I went over my friends list and counted 23 people that I’m sure I’ve never met or even heard of. About two-thirds of the rest I barely know. Why are they telling me things and why do some of them seem insane? They may be Russians. I don’t know.

And then there’s the political stuff and the death of democracy on Facebook. Most of you already know about that so I don’t need to explain. What we do need an explanation for is why people keep looking at Facebook while this stuff is going on.

One explanation may be that Facebook is not only a microtargeting vehicle but also a signaling vehicle. It may be that all five of the authoring Wisconsin Supreme Court justices in the Facebook judge case got this wrong. It may be that it was the trial judge — one Michael Bitney — who was the one doing the messaging.

Check out the currently public portion of his Facebook page. We can’t see his messages (since we’re not friends) but we can see his photos — a solid-looking hunk of a man lifting what looks like a heavy weight. This is not a judge I’m going to mess with.

There will be order is his court — whether we’re friends or not.

TV Review.  I have now seen the first episode of the new "Perry Mason" series.

It’s terrible.

It’s in color, there’s sex and violence, and no one confessed in court at the end of the episode. Della Street works for someone else and seems to have a drinking problem (along with much of the rest of the cast).

I’m very disappointed.

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