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House of Representatives
Session of 2017 - 2018 Regular Session

MEMORANDUM

Posted: November 21, 2017 04:06 PM
From: Representative Florindo J. Fabrizio
To: All House members
Subject: Resolution: Urging the PA Supreme Court’s Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee to address conflicts of interest and update guidance on social media.
 
In the near future, I plan to introduce a resolution urging a division of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to re-evaluate the court’s options for handling conflicts of interest in domestic relations cases.

Specifically, my resolution would urge the Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee to expand its procedures for addressing conflicts of interest that may arise with any adjudicator – be it a judge or special master – and to update court guidance on acceptable social media relationships between adjudicators and attorneys or parties before the court.

Typically, an adjudicator will avoid the mere appearance of impropriety and will voluntarily recuse themselves from a case if a potential conflict of interest exists prior to hearing a case. In one case that was brought to my attention, two conflicts of interest were discovered well after adjudication had occurred. The first involved a Facebook relationship between a special master and an attorney representing one of the parties. The special master was not only friends with one of the attorneys appearing before them, the special master had designated this attorney’s law firm as the only law firm they “liked.” In addition, a more serious and deeply troubling conflict was discovered between the special master and one of the parties.

In counties that have adopted the alternative hearing procedure in family law matters, special masters play a vital role. They conduct hearings and issue recommendations including credibility findings. They make decisions on what is and isn’t allowed into the record. While an appeal process exists and any party has the option to file exceptions to a master’s recommendations, the trial court gives fullest consideration to the master’s findings and will often adopt them as their own.

Conflicts of interest can develop or be discovered in domestic cases and family law matters at any time and in any number of settings, yet parties in these cases cannot challenge a conflict of interest involving an adjudicator after a final decision has been rendered in their case. Furthermore, social media and other online venues provide an ever-changing area of concern for judicial ethicists. Where other states have explicitly banned social media connections between judges and anyone who may appear before them, Pennsylvania’s guidance on the matter remains somewhat less defined.

By providing stronger policies and a mechanism for parties to question the impartiality of an adjudicator even after a final decision, court officials can further ensure all renderings are above reproach.

Please join me in sponsoring this important resolution.

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Introduced as HR631