Sunday, December 24, 2017

Should a Judge Search the Internet to Find Facts?

According to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, the general answer is no. Independent fact investigation is not permissible. Here is the summary:

Easy access to a vast amount of information available on the Internet exposes judges to potential ethical problems. Judges risk violating the Model Code of Judicial Conduct by searching the Internet for information related to participants or facts in a proceeding. Independent investigation of adjudicative facts generally is prohibited unless the information is properly subject to judicial notice. The restriction on independent investigation includes individuals subject to the judge’s direction and control.

Here are the guidelines that a judge should attend  to:

When deciding whether to independently investigate facts on the Internet, the judge should consider:

  1. Is additional information necessary to decide the case? If so, this type of information generally must be provided by counsel or the parties, or must be subject to proper judicial notice.
  2. Is the purpose of the judge’s inquiry to corroborate facts, discredit facts, or fill a factual gap in the record? If the facts are adjudicative, it is improper for a judge to do so.
  3. Is the judge seeking general or educational information that is useful to provide the judge with a better understanding of a subject unrelated to a pending or impending case? If so, the inquiry is appropriate. Judges may use the Internet as they would other educational sources, like judicial seminars and books.
  4. Is the judge seeking background information about a party or about the subject matter of a pending or impending case? If so, the information may represent adjudicative facts or legislative facts, depending on the circumstances. The key inquiry here is whether the information to be gathered is of factual consequence in determining the case. If it is, it must be subject to testing through the adversary process.

For further explanation plus hypotheticals, please click here.


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