U.S. Supreme Court Won't Hear Case Alleging Judicial Bias Because of Facebook Friendship

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March 2 — The U.S. Supreme Court March 2 declined to hear an appeal arguing that a criminal defendant's 14th Amendment right to a fair trial was violated because the trial court judge was Facebook friends with a lead prosecution witness.

Defendant Shanterrica Madden asked Dec. 15 for Supreme Court review of a March 2014 decision from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the trial court judge's decision not to recuse himself from her criminal case. Madden was on trial for the 2011 murder of her college roommate.

The defendant argued the trial court judge should have recused himself because of his “substantial” connections to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), where she and the victim attended college. She cited in part the fact that the judge had 205 Facebook friends who had connections to MTSU, including the women's basketball coach who was one of the prosecution's witnesses.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the trial court judge didn't abuse his discretion when he declined to recuse himself. The court said that the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that state judicial ethics don't require judges “to remain isolated from other members of the bar and from the community.” It added, however, that state judges should treat “with a great deal of care” their online friendships, just as they would real-life friendships.

It concluded, “Simply establishing that a trial judge is acquainted with a lawyer or other person connected to a case does not, without more, suffice to establish an abuse of discretion in the denial of a recusal motion.” The defendant was required to show “some sort of a connection shown between the judge's relationship with a lawyer, party, or witness and some action taken in the case,” which she failed to do in this case.

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