AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Before adjourning the 2015 legislative session, Texas became the first state in the country to name a “Tweeter Laureate.” It’s not a star quarterback or a pop star, but a state Supreme Court justice.
Despite a heavy workload on the state’s highest civil court, Republican Don Willett tweets at least 10 times daily, far more than University of Texas football coach Charlie Strong, who has five times as many followers.
“I’m the most avid judicial tweeter in America, which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz,” said Willett, aka @JusticeWillett.
Willett humors his more than 17,000 followers with 140 characters about Texas pride, life with his children — whom he dubs the “wee Willetts” — and the occasional law lesson. Often, tweets contain eye-roll-worthy memes, Dad jokes and puns.
Instructions to judges on how to use social media are still being formulated, as the technology is still relatively new to the judiciary branch. But Willett embraced the communication tool early, garnering plenty of media attention and topping many “must-follow” lists.
Republican Rep. Ken Sheets said the latest recognition is ceremonial, like the state’s “Poet Laureate,” also appointed by the Legislature since 1933.
He added that the move was a good opportunity to promote social media “as a medium of communication between us and the people of Texas.”
Sheets said that all he expects of Willett, who joined Twitter in 2009 and had more than 16,800 tweets as of Friday afternoon, is to “keep doing what he’s doing. He’s always been a very responsible tweeter.”
Tom Fitton, president of the Washington, D.C.-based group Judicial Watch that pushes for transparency, called the resolution “silliness” and a waste of lawmakers’ time.
He added, “the more you tweet, the more likely you are to make a mistake tweeting.”
But Willett is cautious, following one cardinal rule: No discussing issues that could come before the court. He started using Twitter while ramping up for his 2012 re-election campaign, adding that in a statewide race, “It’s political malpractice not to engage smartly via social media.”
Typically, judges avoid revealing their opinions other than published, in-court ones. And rules regarding social media have only just begun to come out, such as last year, when the American Bar Association issued a formal opinion recognizing social media as “a valuable tool for public outreach.”
The Texas Code on Judicial Conduct instructs judges to observe high standards of conduct and avoid extracurricular activities that interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties. The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct enforces the code, which executive director Seana Willing said already includes communication rules applicable to all modes.
But new rules will likely be adopted soon, Willing said, as the body is involved in its first appeal to the state Supreme Court over a district judge who was sanctioned for misusing Facebook.
In April, Galveston County Judge Michelle Slaughter was ordered to take a four-hour social media training course after she commented on her Facebook page about a case. Slaughter appealed the sanction, and the commission has asked the court to set up a special trial to determine whether the punishment was appropriate.
The three-judge panel will also weigh whether the sanction stifled her First Amendment right to free speech. Austin lawyer Lilian Hardwick, who wrote the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said limitations on judge’s free speech rights “go with the job.”
As for Willett, Twitter for him is a place to enjoy “the musings of smart, fascinating people.”