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Magistrate Quits Over Twitter Posts

A magistrate in the English town of Telford maintains he did nothing wrong when he mentioned cases in posts to Twitter. Even so, he resigned from the bench after a fellow magistrate discovered the tweets and complained.

Steve Molyneux -- who posts to Twitter under the name ProfOnTheProwl -- has been a magistrate for 16 years and is the former mayor of the town of Oakengates. He found himself in hot water over four items he posted Feb. 7 concerning a bail application for three men accused of robbery. In a podcast interview with the U.K. law blog Charon QC, Molyneux recounts that he had been called in to serve on a Saturday court. Over the course of the day, he made four posts:

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.

Just about to hear application from 3 robbers from Manchster as to whether to remand or not.

1st defendant. Conspiricy to rob TSB of £500,000. Good start - wrong previous convictions presented.

Finished hearing bail. 3 refused for planning robbery of £480,000 from Tsb in Dawley, Telford.

He later received a telephone call from Glyn Parry, chairman of the Telford bench, advising him that a fellow magistrate had complained about his use of Twitter. Molyneux met with the chairman Feb. 20 and had what he describes as an "open and frank discussion" that was "amicable and supportive." Soon after that meeting, Molyneux left for a two-week lecture tour in the United States.

Even before he left, he tells Charon QC, he was thinking about resigning from the bench. His concern was not Twitter, he said, but the lack of trust suggested by the colleague's complaint. When he returned from the tour, a letter awaited informing him that the complaint had been referred to the Shropshire Justices Advisory Committee. That, he said, was the last straw and solidified his decision to resign.

Still, Molyneux maintains he did nothing wrong. "I did nothing wrong, I did nothing illegal. I didn’t mention any names or write about anything in the retiring room. All I wrote was in the public domain already," he later said. And on Twitter, he wrote, "I didnt tweet whilst sitting in court but in the retiring room during the break and at the end of the hearing." His one slip-up, he tells Charon QC, was in referring to the three men brought into his court as "robbers" instead of as "defendants." "It was a wording issue," he concedes.

While Charon QC seems sympathetic to Molyneux, Scott H. Greenfield at Simple Justice believes the magistrate exceeded the bounds of propriety:

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.

To my mind, Greenfield has it exactly right. Judges should be free to blog and tweet about whatever they like, provided they do not write specifics about cases pending before them. Molyneux did not need to resign over this -- that was his decision and is to be respected. But as always on Twitter, one should think twice before posting, especially when the twitterer sits on the bench.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 28, 2009 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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