A senior Anoka County judge who posted comments about ongoing sex trafficking, kidnapping and vehicular-homicide cases on his Facebook page has been publicly chastised.
Judge Edward Bearse was reprimanded Friday by the Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards.
The case marked the first instance of public discipline involving a Minnesota judge’s use of social media. But nationwide, courts have wrestled with the thorny issue of judges on social media.
In one of Bearse’s cases, a guilty verdict in a sex trafficking trial was vacated after prosecutors and defense attorneys found out about his Facebook posts. In another post about defendants with lengthy criminal histories, the judge wrote, “We deal w/ a lot of geniuses!” In another, he referred to a defendant as a “Klunk.”
Bearse, 73, told the court that he was a novice Facebook user who didn’t realize that the public could see his postings. He admitted that he was wrong to post at all, according to the board’s decision. The judge believed that only his 80 Facebook “friends” could read his posts.
“The board made a decision. I agree with the decision. I have no further comment,” he said Friday.
The board wrote that “Judge Bearse’s posts put his personal interest in creating interesting posts ahead of his duty to maintain the appearance of impartiality.”
“There is no showing that the posts impaired fairness in the cases,” but his Facebook posts “could undermine the appearance of his impartiality,” it added.
Bearse was appointed to the bench in 1983. He retired in 2006, but still works as a senior judge, taking fill-in assignments in 23 counties.
After the first day of a sex trafficking trial in Olmsted County this September, Bearse posted, “ … I just love doing the stress of jury trials. In a felony trial now State prosecuting pimp. Cases are always difficult because the women (as in this case also) will not cooperate.”
A jury convicted the defendant, but prosecutors found Bearse’s posting and disclosed it. Citing the posting, the defense sought and was granted a new trial, which is set to start later this month.
“We’ve never had it happen before,” said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem. “Having to start all over is a challenge for anyone’s resources.
“Rumor has kind of circulated he posted occasionally. Someone just by chance saw it. His profile was very public on Facebook,” Ostrem said.
During a trial in July, Bearse vented about the “chaos” surrounding a new defense attorney
“ … A vulnerable woman will have to spend other day on the witness stand. … Terrible day!”
The board pointed out that it was Bearse’s first discipline in 32 years on the bench.
“The Board acknowledges Judge Bearse’s reputation as a highly competent, hardworking judge, his immediate corrective actions when the posts became an issue, his full cooperation with the board and his remorse,” it wrote
A tricky new landscape
Raleigh Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said such scenarios are fraught with competing interests.
“As a government employee, judges, like all other public employees, retain speech rights, but they are limited in ways in which other people’s speech rights are not,” Levine said. “There is a real concern that there is an appearance of partiality here. The Supreme Court has made it clear that members of the public must be able to believe in the impartiality of those on the bench.”
The clash among media, free speech rights and a defendant’s right to a fair trial is not new, but social media, which expands publishing capabilities to almost everyone, has added new dimensions, he said.
“Once things get out on Facebook, it’s very difficult to control them,” Levine said.