William A. Ruskin: Lawyers' Use Of Internet To Influence Jurors

By William A. Ruskin

In an earlier article, we discussed the danger posed to an impartial jury system by the "Googling Juror." In his article titled "Lawyers' Use of Internet to Influence Jurors" (New York Law Journal, 6/12/12),Michael Hoenig cautions that "the danger to fair trials posed by Internet-surfing jurors is exacerbated by lawyer 'advertising' of their prowess or success on websites, by publishing case-specific information on firm sites or blogs or other Internet outlets, and by skillfully weaving inaccurate, misleading or self-serving messages, and 'depositing' them where straying jurors can 'find' them."

Hoenig concludes that these can be purposeful stratagems or innocent puffing. He points out that despite First Amendment protections, courts can and should restrict prejudicial speech by attorneys. He cautions that lawyers must be diligent in reviewing whether their adversaries (or agents) might be depositing messages about case facts or party litigants, or extraneous, non-admissible information on websites, blogs or other internet locations with the expectation that a straying juror would find the information. Even if the specific facts of a case at trial are not discussed, prospective or sitting jurors can still peruse the attorney's website, noting biographical information, the firm's specialties, featured clients and the "war stories," crusades or victories many firms describe. Hoenig believes that this information likely will be passed to other jurors.

Lawyers do have First Amendment rights to a wide range of speech but they are also subject to reasonable restrictions as officers of the court. Further, lawyers are bound by ethical rules. Rule 3.6 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits an attorney from making an "extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter." Rule 8.4 prohibits "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" and also states, "a lawyer or law firm shall not: (a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce to do so, or do so through the acts of another." The article discusses the facts of some of the cases that are emerging in this important area of the law

Thus, it is essential that trial counsel perform their own internet investigation concerning both the subject matter of their upcoming trials, and their adversaries' internet materials, to determine whether prejudicial information available to prospective jurors has been posted.

For more cutting edge commentary on developing issues, visit Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by William A. Ruskin of Epstein Becker & Green.

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