So You Like to Tweet? NYT Op-Ed on Texas Supreme Court Justice’s Views

September 29, 2014

By N

To judge by his Twitter feed, Don Willett seems like an all-around solid guy: native Texan, proud conservative, three charming kids, loves Blue Bell ice cream and Baylor football, skilled at selfies, and not above the occasional lowbrow joke.

He is also a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, the highest civil court in the state.

Most judges are temperamentally and occupationally averse to unrobed public utterances of any kind. Scrolling through Justice Willett’s voluminous output, on the other hand, one might forget that his day job is writing opinions that could end up before the United States Supreme Court.

Since joining Twitter in 2009, Justice Willett, who is 48, has written more than 12,800 tweets. That doesn’t put him anywhere near the most prolific Twitter users, but, by his own reckoning, it does make him “probably the most avid judicial tweeter in America — which is like being the tallest munchkin in Oz.”

His tweets are a mix of family outings (“Daddy-Daughter breakfast dates are THE BEST!”), oblique political commentary (“When it comes to legislating from the bench — I literally can’t even”), savvy cultural references and good-natured sports talk. His humor is sometimes corny and often funny. A tweet on Sept. 8 included a photo of two federal judges enduring oral argument, one half-asleep and the other apparently picking his nose, with the caption: “This is why some judges (not me) resist cameras in the courtroom.”

Of course, no one who uses Twitter needs to be reminded of the perils of a misguided tweet. In a phone interview, Justice Willett acknowledged the risks of high-speed, low-character-count dispatches. While on Twitter and Facebook, where he also maintains a public profile, he said he avoids partisan commentary and any legal issues that might come before him. “My political consultant said I’m the only client of his that he does not worry about,” he said.

The main reason for his online presence, he said, is a practical one: staying connected to voters. Texas state judges are elected, and State Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms. Justice Willett, who was first appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005, has won two elections since and will be on the ballot again in 2018. He calls it “political malpractice” not to make use of social media.

Justice Willett also noted that the American Bar Association’s ethical guidelines approve of the “judicious” use of social media in judicial elections as “a valuable tool for public outreach.” (The wisdom of having an elected judiciary is, of course, another matter.)

Certainly Twitter is not the only way judges — elected or appointed — run into trouble for what they say or do out of court. But does a constant stream of innocuous commentary still create a general impression of casualness unbefitting a jurist? One of Justice Willett’s tweets in 2013 showed a Bundt cake covered in chocolate sauce. The caption — “I like big bundts & I cannot lie” — was a pun on a line in “Baby Got Back,” a hugely popular and sexually explicit 1990s rap song. (When asked about that tweet, he said in an email, “Believe me, I’d never tweet the actual lyrics, or anything close to them.”) He said he has heard no complaints about that tweet, or any other.

Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law, said that when it comes to what judges say out of court, the medium is less important than the message. “Judges are expected to live their lives in a more demure way; it’s part of the price you pay in being a judge,” he said.

But how much should that role constrain a judge’s public persona? David Lat, founder and managing editor of Above the Law, a website about the legal profession, said judges are like anybody else — they can be funny one minute and serious the next.

Mr. Lat said the judiciary as a whole benefits when judges are able to express themselves off the bench. “What are we more worried about?” he asked. “Someone who jokes around, or someone who is not following statutes or precedent because they want to be promoted?”

For his part, Justice Willett said he errs on the side of self-censorship. “I try to be careful,” he said. “Usually what goes through my mind before I hit the tweet button is, did I misspell or mis-grammatize anything, but also, is this worth polluting the interwebs with for posterity?”

“…you can dress ’em up…”

A Well-Traveled Coyote

by Nora Naranjo-Morse
John F. Kennedy
        New York City
            I saw him across the lobby
                 flight 161
                     St. Louis
                         Albuquerque.
Coyote looked in control
        cool
             fitting right into the city
                 smiling when a pretty woman passed him
                     figuring out his flight
                          making calculations from behind
                              the New York Times.
Slick
         right down to his Tony Lamas
             Coyote
                 I’d recognize him anywhere
                     Copenhagen
                          New York
                              Gallup.
People say
you can dress ’em up
        but once a coyote
             always a coyote.

This is Where I Leave You, 2014

This is where I roll my eyes and begin to make gagging sounds…

Well, maybe that is a bit uncharitable given the all-star cast of actors that this film boasts, but I do believe it portrays a plethora of dysfunctions all in one family that just seems one too many, and I wonder if audiences worldwide (forgive me for always considering the worldview) might get the impression that this may be more the norm to all American families in general. And that it perhaps takes the most dire of reunions such as those to be had at funerals to settle differences, conflicts, and unresolved childhood and adolescent issues.

Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, and Jason Bateman are all quite shining in their performances, but you somehow wish they were put to work on a better script. There are certainly a few moments of unbridled comedy, but they unfortunately are not overwhelmingly in favor of making the film a memorable one.

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