When The Magistrate Twits
The phenomenon of twitter is hardly an American thing, captivating cutting edge Brits as well. But when IT consultant, professor and part-time Magistrate Steve Molyneux decided to combine his fancies, he found that the world wasn't quite ready for a twittering Mag. Molyneux explains his situation in a podcast with CharonQC on his InsiteLaw Magazine.
Molyneux, who twits under the name @profontheprowl, was called in to sit as Magistrate one night, expecting the usual drunks. Instead, he found himself being asked to set bond for accused bank robbers, a somewhat bigger matter than he was used to. And so he twitted.
Finished hearing bail. 3 refused for planning robbery of £480,000 from Tsb in Dawley, Telford.1st defendant. Conspiricy to rob TSB of £500,000. Good start - wrong previous convictions presented.Just about to hear application from 3 robbers from Manchster as to whether to remand or not.Called into Court today to deal with those arrested last night and held in custody. I guess they will be mostly drunks but you never know.
Someone complained, the matter escalated until he felt constrained to resign after 16 years of serving as a magistrate. From the BBC:
"I was using the technology after hearing a remand case just to inform local people and others that follow me in my role of magistrate and didn't think I'd done anything wrong.
"I didn't prejudice a case, I didn't do anything like that."
Of course, twits being what they are, certain extraneous words, like "accused" or "alleged" were omitted to fit his thoughts into 140 characters. But that's twitter, right? Certainly Molyneux didn't think this was enough to turn perfectly innocent twits into earth shattering problems.
In fact, he argued, his feed was providing people with a service.
"I use it to communicate with the public. The people who read the Twitter read the same thing in the newspaper that evening.
"The fact [is] I used a piece of technology that allowed others [to know about the case outcome] that may not have read the local newspaper but were just as interested. I saw no harm in it."
Molyneux saw himself on the cutting edge, doing nothing more than using today's flavor of technology to let his tweeps know what he was up to. Indeed, after he resigned under pressure, he decided to apply a little pressure of his own by twitting:
Thanks for support. I believe the debate is that maybe Govt should look at twitter as 21st Century Court reporter.
So is twitter the "21st Century court reporter," or an improper extrajudicial statement, outside the hearing of the defendants and their counsel, reflecting an inarticulate and improper biased description of the accused? Put another way, does the fact that twitter exists mean that it's an appropriate fit for all uses?
Listening to Charon's podcast with Molyneux, I have no doubt that he meant no harm and his twits, to the extent that they failed to use the appropriate phraseology in discussing his actions as a sitting magistrate weren't intended to reflect a preconceived notion that the defendants were guilty. I similarly have no doubt that Molyneux failed to perceive the problems raised.
Twitter, by its intrinsic limitations, is a particularly poor medium to convey delicate messages. When you only have 140 characters, something has to give. Here, it happened to be the level of neutral detail demanded of someone sitting in the position of Magistrate, instead offering a gross description devoid of nuance. But that's only part of the problem.
Should judges be expressing their thoughts on cases before them publicly, yet off the record? Twitter is not the equivalent of a court reporter, as it doesn't do any of the things a court reporter is expected to do. It's not a verbatim transcript. It does not reflect the statements of the parties in the case. It's public, yet not public at all if you don't follow the twitterer and don't know it has been the subject of twits.
Much as I realize that testing the parameters of new technologies is something of an article of faith for many, Molyneux pushed the envelope too far when he failed to distinguish the difference between his twitting his thoughts as a Magistrate versus his other roles. Whether there is, should be, will be parameters for the appropriate use of twitter by a judge has yet to be seen, and is certainly subject to worthy debate. But the unilateral decision to do so demonstrated poor judgment and reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the obligations inherent in his judicial role as opposed to just a guy who likes to twit.
It really wasn't up to Molyneux to decide for himself whether this was a harmless exercise and his twits were inconsequential. It wasn't up to him to omit the little detail words, like "accused" and "alleged" to fit his thoughts into 140 characters. Whether it was worthy of his resignation is another matter, as it barely registers in the scheme of judicial impropriety, but it still was poor choice.