Promoting and protecting public confidence in government institutions is central to continued faith in the rule of law. As a result, when personal scandals or internal failures threaten public trust in government institutions, policy makers have been quick to respond with new measures to increase accountability for misconduct. In the twentieth century, the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s led to significant changes in accountability for misconduct by high-level public officials and in the legal profession generally. For judges, in the years just prior to Watergate, high-profile scandals involving federal judges also led to significant changes in the regulation of judicial conduct. Since the 1970s, however, the types of ethical challenges faced by all public officials have become more complex in the digital age.
This Article explores some of the most common ethical issues facing judges as they interact in the digital world, from the use of social media to Internet research. To put the emerging judicial ethics rules relating to the use of social media and the Internet in context, this Article lays the foundation for preserving public confidence in the courts through discussion of the three core values of judicial ethics - independence, integrity, and impartiality - and how judicial ethics enforcement evolved in the post- Watergate era with the introduction of independent judicial enforcement agencies. Looking to recent disciplinary actions by these agencies involving judicial use of social media and a wave of concern over independent Internet research, this Article posits that prophylactic rules regarding social media use by judges are not necessary to maintain public trust and confidence in the courts. Instead, resort to and strict enforcement of the existing rules that require judges at all times to embrace the core values of independence, integrity, and impartiality are both sufficient and adaptable enough to be applied to the variety of disciplinary issues that can arise when judges engage with the digital world.
Carolyn A. Dubay, Public Confidence in the Courts in the Internet Age: The Ethical Landscape for Judges in the Post-Watergate Age, 40 Campbell L. Rev. 531 (2018).