Wishing Trial Judge Happy Birthday on Facebook Not an Ex Parte Communication


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Friend your trial judge on Facebook.

Facebook is creating a quickly growing pile of novel legal issues in a variety of areas. Here’s one of the first to reach a state supreme court: Does a witness’ wishing a trial judge happy birthday on the judge’s Facebook page violate the rules on ex parte communications?

The plaintiff in Onnen v. Sioux Falls Independent School District # 49-5 worked as the registrar for Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls—an entity of the Sioux Falls School District. Plaintiff was terminated from employment in August 2007 due to improprieties relating to the registrar’s duty to verify a student’s compliance with graduation requirements. Among other things, some 28 students had been improperly awarded degrees, while 40-50 students entitled to a diploma did not receive one. The plaintiff appealed the termination. The trial court affirmed the decision and the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Among the issues raised on appeal, the plaintiff argued that a “major witness” for the School District had improperly engaged in an ex parte communication with the trial judge by wishing him “Happy Birthday” on the judge’s Facebook profile page. The court held that the trial judge was not required to disqualify himself and that an uninvited and unresponded-to happy birthday greeting on Facebook does not rise to the level of an improper ex parte communication.

I’m assuming the witness (who apparently was a distant relative of the judge) was a Facebook friend of the judge to be able to post a birthday greeting. If so, is that a problem? Some states have rules prohibiting judges from being on Facebook. Is that a free speech violation? An interesting legal question raised by social networking–one of first of what is going to be a long list.

Onnen v. Sioux Falls Independent School District, Case No. 49-5, 2011 S.D. 85 (2011). Thanks to Professor Roger Baron.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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