Judges using social media – a problem?

Twitter may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about judges. Judges are commonly reserved people, who aren’t exactly known for being tech savvy or being prolific on social media. Twitter is perhaps the antithesis of a judge’s character: it’s informal, it’s powered by technology and at 140 characters you have to be anything but thorough to attract attention.

Of course, the traditional attributes of a judge aren’t going anywhere and perhaps that’s why they command such credibility in the first place. Their formal, dry and conservative manner conveys supreme objectivity to the public at large. While they may not be as incendiary as a Lady Gaga outfit, their cool demeanor presumably aids in the impartial administration of justice. But whom would you rather handle your case: a judge or a pop-star?

That’s why tweeting judges might be an unusual sight for some. But is it a problem? Should there be new judicial standards in place when it comes to social media?

One of the most popular judges that uses Twitter is Justice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court.

A piece in the New York Times writes that Justice Willett, 48, has posted over 12,800 tweets since joining the service in 2009. He is far from prolific, but by his own admission, he is “probably the most avid judicial tweeter in America — which is like being the tallest munchkin in Oz.”

Judge Willett tweets about anything from family outings to political commentary to witty cultural references and even good old sports talk.

But can tweets ever get dangerous? In a phone interview, Justice Willett acknowledged the risks of social media. Having a Twitter and Facebook profile, he has to watch and maintain his public image which means no partisan commentary or discussion of legal issues that are assigned to him.

So why do it in the first place? Judge Willett says that the main reason he uses social media is a practical one: keeping in touch with voters. Texas state judges are elected by the people and State Supreme Court justices have a six-year term to serve. Justice Don Willett who was first appointed to court by Governor Rick Perry in 2005 has won two elections since and he will run again in 2018. Justice Willett considers it “political malpractice” to not take advantage of social media.

We believe that judges who blog or use social media improve the public understanding of the courts while increasing the transparency of the judicial system. Of course they should exercise sound judgement – but that shouldn’t be a problem since we already pay them to do so.

Should judges be barred from having a personality? I think not. They have already sacrificed financial opportunities by engaging in public service. Judges are entitled to public attention and respect which is in itself a form of non-monetary compensation that they get for the service they perform for the public.

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