Judge chided for Facebook posts that triggered mistrial in “boy in the box” case

social-media-170A Texas judge has been chewed out for making Facebook posts about a case that resulted in a mistrial, and has been ordered to get trained on “proper and ethical use of social media” by judges.

Galveston County Judge Michelle Slaughter protested the public admonition in a statement released on Friday, saying that she conducts trials in a fair and impartial way and that her Facebook posts were harmless, given that they only contained publicly available information.

The Houston Chronicle quotes her:

The Commission's opinion appears to unduly restrict transparency and openness in government and in our judiciary.

The judicial system begs to differ.

Following its review of the allegations against the judge, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct ruled that the Facebook posts were out of line and ordered Slaughter to get four hours of training on how a judge should conduct herself on social media.

The trial in question had been referred to by reporters as the “Boy in the Box” case.

A Texas man, David Wieseckel, had been charged with punishing his 9-year-old son by keeping him in a 6’x8′ (2.4 meter by 1.8 meter) wooden crate.

It was made from particle board, locked from the outside, and had a peephole to see in.

Judge Slaughter had given the jury the standard instructions: no talking to anyone, whether face to face, by email, on the phone, or on Facebook – all of which is “absolutely forbidden,” she said.

No investigating the facts of the case, either.

That goes not just for the jury but for the judge herself, she said in written instructions:

Do not make any investigation about the facts of this case. ... All evidence must be presented in open court so that each side may question the witnesses and make proper objection. This avoids a trial based upon secret evidence. These rules apply to jurors the same as they apply to the parties and to me (the judge). [Emphasis added].

But, on the first day of testimony, the judge went on Facebook and posted these comments:

Opening statements this morning at 9:30 am in the trial called by the press "the boy in the box" case.

After we finished Day 1 of the case called the "Boy in the Box" case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6"x8' [measurements are sic]"box" inside the courtroom!

This is the case currently in the 405th! [Post included a link to a Reuters article entitled: "Texas father on trial for putting son in box as punishment."]

Officials said that at the time she made the posts about the box, it hadn’t yet been admitted into evidence at trial, meaning that Slaughter had posted about the same type of “secret evidence” she had warned jurors not to investigate outside of court.

Slaughter cast “reasonable doubt” on her own impartiality by using social media to discuss cases pending in her court, the commission said, adding that there is a “legitimate concern” that she wouldn’t be impartial in this or other high-profile cases.

The public admonition said that the comments “went beyond providing an explanation of the procedures of the court” and “highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced at trial.”

Judges have a duty to decide every case fairly and impartially. Judicial independence, impartiality and integrity must be seen in order for the public to have confidence in the legal system. Despite her contention that the information she provided was public information, Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the Wieseckel case or in other high-profile cases.

The defense motioned to have the judge removed from the case – a motion the next judge granted, resulting in a mistrial.

Wieseckel was later found not guilty of unlawful restraint of a child.

Slaughter plans to appeal the ruling by the commission in her disciplinary case.

She had told the commission that the Reuters article she had linked to in her post was an objective, impartial, journalistic piece. She also maintained that judges retain First Amendment free speech rights, including through social media platforms such as Facebook.

The commission brought up this February 2014 Facebook comment, which Slaughter had made about a case pending in her court:

We have a jury deliberating on punishment for two counts of possession of child pornography. It is probably one of the most difficult types of cases for jurors (and the judge and anyone else) to sit through because of the evidence they have to see. Bless the jury for their service and especially bless the poor child victims.

Slaughter defended the post, saying that the jury had already heard the evidence and was deliberating the case.

Also, she told the commission, she’d only meant to point out …

...an obvious fact that sitting through any child pornography case is difficult.

After she was recused from the Wieseckel case, she posted this on Facebook:

We finished up sentencing today with a very challenging defendant.

Slaughter defended that post by arguing that “[u]sing the phrase ‘very challenging’ does not give rise to any indication that [she] treated [the defendant] unfairly;” and that the post “referred to a case that was no longer pending or impending” in her court and, as such, “there was nothing to suggest [her] probable decision in that case.”

While there’s much to be said for transparency in a democracy, does the First Amendment give a judge the right to say anything about the cases before her in a public way on Facebook?

In my opinion, the judge’s use of blaring media headlines (and with exclamation points, giving it even more hype!) doesn’t seem that impartial – especially about a case wherein even the simplest terms like “box” are under contention by the defense.

Don’t we need messages from judges that don’t have the slightest whiff of pre-judging the outcome?

Readers, what do you think?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of social media courtesy of Shutterstock.com.