San Antonio Judge Disciplined for Facebook Posts That Congratulated Lawyers
The judge’s eight Facebook posts, which appeared between August and October 2019, congratulated 12 attorneys on winning jury verdicts, and lauded them for their results and professional backgrounds, the public admonition said.
Originally Published; Apr. 14, 2020
Using Facebook to congratulate lawyers who won jury verdicts in her courtroom has brought a public sanction for a San Antonio judge.
But Bexar County Court-at-Law No. 13 Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez on Wednesday plans to file notices of appeal for the sanction, said her lawyer, Deanna Whitley.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct gave a public admonition and order of additional education to Speedlin Gonzalez for eight posts she published on her official judicial Facebook page.
But the judge’s attorney says the commission should have handled the Facebook posts differently. She said it’s not very clear what’s permitted in judges’ social media posts, and the commission should have instead offered education to Speedlin Gonzalez.
Jacqueline Habersham, executive director of the commission, declined to comment.
Speedlin Gonzalez’s eight posts, which appeared between August and October 2019, congratulated 12 attorneys on winning jury verdicts and lauded them for their results and professional backgrounds, the public admonition said. The judge stopped publishing those types of Facebook posts once she received the commission’s inquiry in the matter.
But a rule in the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from lending the prestige of their judicial office to advance their own or others’ private interests. The commission determined that Speedlin Gonzalez had willfully and persistently violated that judicial canon when she posted about the lawyers and jury verdicts.
Speedlin Gonzalez said that her Facebook posts published after the verdicts were rendered and the jury was gone. She said she congratulated both prosecutors who won guilty verdicts, and criminal-defense lawyers who won not-guilty verdicts. Yet Speedlin Gonzalez added that the commission raised issues only with her posts that congratulated defense counsel.
There is precedent about how the judicial canons apply to judges on social media.
In 2015, then-405th District Judge Michelle Slaughter, who has since been elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, won an appeal in which a special court of review found she had made errors in judgment, but not willful ethical violations, in her Facebook posts about pending criminal cases.
The Slaughter opinion said, “A judge should never reveal his or her thought processes in making any judgment. Even calling attention to certain facts or evidence found significant enough for the judge to comment on in a pending matter before any decision has been rendered may tend to give the public the impression that they are seeing into the deliberation process of the judge.”
The case illustrates that when judges comment on pending cases, there’s the risk of a recusal or mistrial. It can detract from the public’s trust and confidence in the justice system, the opinion said.
But there’s a difference between Slaughter’s Facebook posts Speedlin Gonzalez’s posts, said John Browning, a partner in Spencer Fane in Plano, who writes, speaks and teaches judges about the ethical use of social media.
Browning, who is not involved in any of the cases, said Slaughter’s posts were factual and informative, with a goal of educating the public, and they did not express the judge’s opinion.
But Speedlin Gonzalez seems to have voiced her opinion that a lawyer did a great job, Browning added. This could have created the impression the judge was partial to one side, or could have suggested the judge’s probable decision in the case, if it ever came before her again, he explained.
“If you are the lawyer on the losing end you have to feel especially bad,” Browning said. “Not only did you not get a result you were hoping for, but now you have the judge applauding your opponent.”