He has more than 10,000 followers and one of the most well-known and humorous Twitter feeds in the country. By any standard, that’s pretty impressive. But considering that Don Willett is a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, he shatters the competition from those in his profession.
Justice Willett is a native Texan, graduating from Baylor University in 1988. He was the first college graduate in his family. He went to law school at Duke immediately afterward, followed by an illustrious career in law and policy, at one point serving as Director of Law and Policy in the White House for President Bush.
Despite those achievements, Justice Willett’s Twitter feed allows him to connect with everyday people, rather than staying distant from the public eye – as most judges prefer to do.
For example, a tweet posted on November 21st says “The one (and only) book a Supreme Court Justice needs in his library…” with a picture of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes collection of comics. Or another, with a picture of a roll of black tape, backed by the Declaration of Independence: “If you mend rips in your judicial robe with black electrical tape, you might be a redneck judge…”
Or when Baylor’s football team was ranked below rival TCU (leading to disappointment and frustration among Baylor fans), Justice Willett tweeted, “SMG = ‘shaking my gavel'” on Nov. 18th.
Justice Willett said he first reserved his Twitter handle, @JusticeWillett, in 2009. He wanted to “avoid someone poaching it.”
His first tweet? On February 19, 2010, to commemorate his firstborn son’s 6th birthday. “Initially, I would only tweet every 3-4 days, if that,” said Justice Willett. “Now that I’m getting more acquainted with it, I probably tweet 15-20 times per day on average.”
It’s unusual for someone in a judicial role to have a strong social media presence – especially considering the possible mistakes that could be made. But Justice Willett says he is careful. “You have to engage smartly,” he said. He takes pride in his diverse followers and tries to avoid scoring cheap political points. He is also very careful to avoid speaking about potential legal issues that may come before the Texas Supreme Court.
The benefits are important to him. Though Justice Willett’s Twitter account first became substantially active during his first contested primary in 2012, he soon realized that tweeting often was a low-cost, high-yield way to increase his visibility. “Voters have very little information about who these obscure judicial characters are,” he said.
It helps to give voters a chance to see Don Willett the father, husband, and sports fan instead of just Don Willett, the justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Most people usually view judges as “dull, humorless, disembodied brains who decide high-browed legal disputes” said Willett. “There’s a lot of truth in that, but we are every bit as flesh and blood as everybody else.”
Justice Willett has received great responses from followers, both in his community and around the country. “People view it as rare and refreshing for a Supreme Court Justice to step out from behind the bench and be authentic,” he said. Part of that owes to the fact that he writes all of his own tweets. He doesn’t rely on any staff members to post to his account, even during the campaigns.
As such, he realizes the importance of watching what he says. “I do a lot of self-censoring before I hit the Tweet button.” He says he has never deleted a tweet for being imprudent. “Whether it’s a 140-page opinion or a 140-character tweet, judges need to be cautious.”
One thing Justice Willett especially likes about Twitter is that it helps to remove distance. Posting interesting content on free social media is a way to get the same message across to people who may be far away.
He has also never paid to promote his tweets – only earning followers the “old-fashioned way.”
So if Justice Willett wasn’t running for reelection every six years, would he still tweet? He thinks so. Twitter offers “a terrific one-stop compilation of very smart people commenting on the warp-speed happenings of the world.”