Dear Model Code:

May I do online research on cases that appear before me? Some facts are not specifically stated in court but would be easy to find online. What do you say?

Sincerely,

Hon. G. Oogle

Dear Judge G. Oogle:

Great question. The short answer, in your situation, is no.

Model Code Rule 2.9(C) says, “A judge shall not investigate facts in a matter independently, and shall consider only the evidence presented and any facts that may properly be judicially noticed.” Comment 6 extends this rule to “information available in all mediums, including electronic.”

If you determine information aside from materials already presented in court is needed, you should turn to the parties to supply that needed fact—not the internet, even if it is easily available and tempting.

There are a few exceptions. Rule 2.9(C) does not preclude legal research or information that is subject to judicial notice in accordance with the Rules of Evidence.

This rule and its interpretation will protect you from online information that can be biased or plain wrong. It can also protect you from the appearance of partiality that could arise if you consider information not presented to both parties.

For a more detailed explanation, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility addresses this concern in Formal Opinion 478. Also, check out this piece in the ABA Journal.

Digitally Yours,

The Model Code of Judicial Conduct

P.S.: Don’t try to sidestep Rule 2.9 by assigning the research to law clerks or court staff.