Miami-Dade County judge's Facebook friendship doesn't require recusal

Facebook 'friend' appears before her in court; appellate court says no conflict


MIAMI – A Facebook friendship doesn't necessarily constitute a real friendship, so says a South Florida appellate court.

Miami-Dade County Judge Beatrice Butchko doesn't need to recuse herself because an attorney involved in a case in her courtroom is a Facebook friend, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday.

In a 10-page opinion, the court ruled that Facebook data mining and algorithms lead to people accepting friend requests from people whom they hardly know or with whom they are acquainted in professional circles.

"To be sure, some of a member's Facebook 'friends' are undoubtedly friends in the classic sense of a person for whom the member feels particular affection and loyalty," the judges ruled. "The point is, however, many are not."

The court cites a 2012 case involving a Temple University student who didn't know he was a Facebook "friend" with another student he was accused of assaulting because he had more than 1,000 Facebook friends.

A North Miami law firm petitioned the court to have Butchko removed from presiding over a contract dispute against the United Services Automobile Association because her former bench colleague and Facebook friend, Israel Reyes, appeared before her as an attorney.

"Because a 'friend' on a social networking website is not necessarily a friend in the traditional sense of the word, we hold that the mere fact that a judge is a Facebook 'friend' with a lawyer for a potential party or witness, without more, does not provide a basis for a well-grounded fear that the judge cannot be impartial or that the judge is under the influence of the Facebook 'friend,'" the judges said.

But the fight over Facebook friendship continues. An appellate court in West Palm Beach has ruled to the contrary. That means the question over the true meaning of social media friendship could eventually be decided by the Florida Supreme Court.