September 29, 2014
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?”