Donny Ray Willett is a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth...
Rocky Dhir’s dual interest in innovation and the law prompted him to establish Atlas Legal Research, LP in 2000....
It’s one of the greatest honors a judge can receive during his career, to be named Tweeter Laureate. In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, host Rocky Dhir talks to Judge Don Willett about how he became the Tweeter Laureate of Texas and an example for other judges who want to use social media as a platform. He shares some tips for using social media and speaks to whether users are over-engaged. He also discusses the role judges should play in our judicial system and the importance of educating the masses about their government.
Don Ray Willett is a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
Becoming the Tweeter Laureate of Texas with Judge Willett
Outro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: So, did you know that Texas has its very own Twitter Laureate? Do you even know what a Twitter Laureate is? Would you like to meet our Twitter Laureate? I certainly would. So I want to welcome you to the State Bar of Texas Podcast. This is Rocky Dhir, bringing you Texas’ own Twitter Laureate, Judge Don Willett.
Judge welcome, welcome to the show.
Judge Don Willett: Hey, thanks so much. I’m glad to be here.
Rocky Dhir: So, I got to ask you — I’m just going to cut straight to the chase because this is the question on everybody’s mind. What is a Twitter Laureate and how did you become the Twitter Laureate of Texas?
Judge Don Willett: I think it’s just sort of legislative serendipity. I was actually at Duke pursuing an LLM degree, an advanced law degree and it was sort of a random unexpected happening but in my pre-federal judge life I was probably, for better or worse, the most avid, prolific, social media using judge in America, which I have described as being the tallest munchkin in Oz or like the most popular kid in chess club. It’s really — it’s a bar solo, it’s practically subterranean, but I began using Twitter probably in 2009 as a campaign communications tool, as I geared up for my reelection.
So, it began just sort of in a utilitarian way because I better run for re-election or had to in a State of 28 million people spread across 254 counties and a couple of time zones and it just was apparent to me that it’s really political malpractice not to engage voters smartly through social media. We live in a wired world and Twitter processes more than a billion tweets every 48 hours and I think we’ve seen a revolutionary shift in how people communicate, how they share information.
So, if you’re a an obscure, non-judicial candidate running for re-election and you’re trying to build awareness and raise visibility, it’s really sort of foolhardy not to try to take advantage of this low-cost but potentially high-yield way to put yourself in front of voters.
Rocky Dhir: Well, okay, so that explains the Twitter; but, what about the Laureate? How did you get the Laureate part of it? I mean, that’s almost like being knighted, and so, how did you become the Twitter knight of the Texas judiciary? I just made that up by the way.
Judge Don Willett: I think people were genuinely astonished that a fuddy-duddy judge could step out from behind the bench and come across as halfway ordinary like a real person, not a disembodied brain with a black robe, and I tried to keep my Twitter feed light, engaging, fun, interesting.
Of course I don’t talk about pending cases or disputed legal or cultural issues that could come before me. I don’t throw partisan sharp elbows, I don’t try to score cheap political points, I just got to keep saying sort of light and engaging, and I think people were sort of astonished that a nerdy judge; and believe me, my nerd level is upper deck. I mean, I don’t take a backseat to anybody with the level of my nerdom, but I think people were amazed that an uber nerdy judge could come across as halfway ordinary.
Rocky Dhir: Now, when we talk about nerdy, let’s just paint a picture. You wear bowties.
Judge Don Willett: Guilty. I do. I wear bowties pretty frequently, and yeah, to look at me — yeah, there’s certainly a heavy Poindexter element there.
Rocky Dhir: Let’s talk for a second about a couple of things here. First of all, let’s talk about where you come from, because this is a fascinating story now. I have to thank you for being here. I know as of the date of our conversation today your mother passed away, your mother, Doris, passed away about, well, less than a week ago and here you are talking to us. It sounds like — it sounds like you are a very resilient guy and I can’t help but think that some of that had to be genetic. Tell us about your mom?
Judge Don Willett: Oh, well, thank you for asking and “resilience” is certainly a word that would describe her, but yes, she passed away at the age of 87. We had her funeral last week and as my Twitter followers know, as many others know, because I talk about her frequently. She was one of a kind, she was widowed young, without a high school diploma and after my father died when I was age 6, he was 40, my mom hunkered down. She did what a lot of heroic moms do. She hunkered down and worked her heart out to support her family. She was a waitress for 55 years.
Rocky Dhir: At a truck stop, right?
Judge Don Willett: Most of that at the local truck stop near where I grew up. I grew up in a little double-wide trailer out in the country surrounded by cotton and cattle, and the night before I joined my former court, the Texas Supreme Court, the night before my swearing-in I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my mom the following day and I found a website that will estimate the number of miles that people walk every day different occupations, letter-carrier, super-high, waitress, unbelievably high. So, I did my quick warrior math and discovered in her 55 years of waitressing, she had walked roughly from the earth to the moon which is a quarter million miles, which is hard to wrap your noggin around us, a huge abstract number, but imagine there’s a map of Texas and put your finger in the corner of the panhandle and trace the border of the Lone Star State about 80 times.
Rocky Dhir: Wow!
Judge Don Willett: Every working year of her life, she made a complete trip around the outside border of Texas, trip and-a-half just about, and I tell people, every step she took, every quarter tip she shoved in her pocket, brought me one step closer to this unbelievable privilege I have.
So, mom was sweet with a side of fast, I think, she was famously opinionated, always caffeinated, but she was a category-5 combination of grit and oaks in dynamism. She was a force of nature, but also was a life of really profound sacrifice and tenacity and it was a life well-lived, it was a life everlasting well-earned, and I told people at her funeral last week that the greatest tribute we can give her is to grab life by the scruff of the neck as she did. She lived life with unbridled exuberance and she loved with unrivaled extravagant and her name was Doris and I tell people to live life not just carpe diem but carpe Doris, which is the next level, and to leave a rich trail as she did of love and laughter, and no doubt growing up her days were often long but she prized everyone with gladness and gusto, and gratitude. So, her life is no doubt one to celebrate but even more it is one to emulate.
Rocky Dhir: Well, she sounds like a remarkable woman. You talked about probably if you counted it up and I’m doing my version of lawyer’s math and I’m assuming she made millions of steps on her way to the moon, and so those millions of small steps seem to have culminated in a very gigantic leap in terms of the life that you’re leading.
So, let’s talk about 2005. That was a year when Governor Rick Perry nominated you to fill a vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court. Tell us about the conversation you had with your mom when that happened. Did you call her right-away, did you talk to her about it? What was her reaction to her son becoming a Texas Supreme Court Justice?
Judge Don Willett: Mom was always proud, kind of every step of my professional career. I’m the first member of my family to kind of venture off beyond small-town life and finish high school, go to college and from college to law school and grad school and then private practice and working within government for a long time. So, she was somewhat accustomed to me having this sort of succession of really exhilarating consequential jobs, but I think serving on the Supreme Court was special for her and she and I growing up would watch a lot of kind of law and order dramas, a lot of cop shows on TV, and she also in her post-waitress life, she worked for the local Justice of the Peace in my little rinky-dink small town.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, okay.
Judge Don Willett: And I think when I went onto the bench I think that was extra special for her, more so even than my working at the White House or working in the Governor’s mansion.
It was an out-of-body experience serving on the court and kind of sharing that experience with her. And because she was so integral to my getting there, my formal investiture was in November of ’05 and I chose the date I chose, November 21st, because it was my heroic mom’s 75th birthday.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, okay.
Judge Don Willett: And I wanted to pay tribute to her because she was kind of the indispensable secret sauce ingredient to my being there.
Rocky Dhir: And you said that you serving on the Texas Supreme Court held a special significance. You said it was more special even than you serving in the White House from the Governor’s mansion. What was it about the Supreme Court that fascinated her so much?
Judge Don Willett: I think she liked me just had a special soft spot for that branch of government. We inhabit an age of a lot of political snarling and in the political branches, legislative and executive branch, if you have enough raw political power at your disposal, you can just ram and jam and cram through whatever you want without a lot of apology or accommodation or explanation.
But I think my mom and certainly I viewed the judiciary as different, as the most elegant branch of government. And centuries ago, there were these two great presidents, they were both commanding generals and they sort of underscored how indispensable a strong judiciary is.
So, first was George Washington, who wrote a letter to his Attorney General and he said, “The due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” This iconic phrase it sort of edged in stone among that famous courthouse in Manhattan. But then 53 years later, President Sam Houston told the Congress of the Republic of Texas, he said, “An able, honest and enlightened judiciary should be the first object of every people.”
So, two presidents, one precedent and they agreed, I think my mom believed and I certainly believe that a strong judiciary is essential to a strong State into a strong United States and I revere the law, I think it’s a majestic thing, and when you confer the title “Judge” or “Justice” on someone you place in human hand that profound majesty.
Rocky Dhir: So, let’s maybe talk for a second about the role of the judiciary. I think most lawyers, for all practicing lawyers, would agree that a strong judiciary is necessary and crucial to the functioning of a strong democracy, but there’s a debate and there has been a debate raging probably since the very beginnings of our judicial journey about the role that judges should play.
And we hear the terms of “judicial activism”, we hear the terms “strict interpretationist” or maybe judicial restraint, we hear terms like legislating from the bench, we’ve also heard “judicial engagement”, can you kind of dissect those terms for us? Tell us in your view, what the role of a judge ought to be, or the role of the judiciary as a whole maybe ought to be?
Judge Don Willett: Right. If I were writing a judicial job description, the paramount attribute in my view would be a surpassing fidelity to the rule of law. The rule of law demands clear rules that are consistently applied. So, you’re not buffeted by gusts of popular opinion. It’s really all about the even-handed application of principle about no favorite decision-making, no finger on the scale, no finger in the wind.
You’re not imposing your own personal vision of justice; however, strongly felt it may be. During law school, a quarter century ago — and this is probably true of law students today, you read these judicial opinions written by these epic common law legends like Benjamin Cardozo, and Learned Hand and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
And it’s really all about them sort of finding an outcome, a rationale that they believe it’s just and fair and equitable, but we largely don’t inhabit that legal landscape anymore. Lawmakers are fond of lawmaking so they pass a raft of new laws and every new law sort of shrinks the universe of judge-made common law.
So, the lion’s share of modern-day appellate judging what I do, the overwhelming bulk of appellate judging is reading language and deciding what it means in giving at its fairest, most forthright, most straightforward interpretation. And my view is lawmakers make laws and having worked in other branches of government on the State and the Federal level I think I know policymaking and I know judging, and I know the difference.
And it’s certainly not my role as I see it to revise what lawmakers have enacted under the guides of interpreting.
Rocky Dhir: So, what is that difference? You said the difference between policymaking and judging. Is there a way to articulate where that line is?
Judge Don Willett: Well, I do my best to take language as I find it. I’m looking out my window I see this majestic dome of the Texas Capitol and I worked for Governor Bush there for four years and then followed him to DC. So, I’m sort of familiar with the role of policymakers.
They take testimony, they have hearings, they craft and revise legislation driven by their view of what is in the best public interest of the people of Texas or of the nation. Judges, in my view, have a more modest role in our constitutional architecture. When you’re interpreting what the political branches have passed you’re sort of limited to the four corners of what they enacted. And I don’t view it as my role to sort of embellish or try to spruce up or edit their handiwork under the guides of interpreting it.
So, I’m a textualist at heart, and I think my former court, the Texas Supreme Court, is a very text-centered court but we take language as we find it, and we take lawmakers at their word, and we believe the truest manifestation of what they intended is what they enacted.
Rocky Dhir: So, you’ve been both on the — you were on the Texas Supreme Court, now you are on the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Can you maybe describe for us the biggest difference that you found when going from one court to the up there, both appellate courts but have there been some profound differences that maybe you weren’t expecting when you moved from one to the other?
Judge Don Willett: They are different in many ways. Fundamentally, though the judicial toolkit is the same. It is fundamentally a job about language, about reading and researching, and writing. My title has changed from Justice to Judge, but my task has not changed. I’m still judging best I can according to the rule of law, which I think is a sacred trust.
So, I’ve been a lawyer now for almost exactly half my life, almost to the day half my life. And I’ve been a judge for half of my lawyer life, and it’s been really surreal to return to the court where I began my career as a law clerk a quarter century ago, I’m officing next door to the office where I was a law clerk on this court 25 years ago.
The volume on this court and the velocity are next level. The conveyor belt never stops. It is truly like Lucy and Ethel in the Chocolate Factory.
Rocky Dhir: I am old enough to remember that.
Judge Don Willett: One of my former court — apology to your younger listeners but —
Rocky Dhir: The show is called ‘I Love Lucy’; google it.
Judge Don Willett: We had discretionary review on my former court. We got to pick and choose our docket and I missed that singular power. So, the volume and the velocity are truly next level on this court, and also just the rhythm of the court, the pace of the court.
Now, instead of hearing every case with eight other smart colleagues, deciding every case as an en bunc court, meaning the entire membership collectively deciding the case, which gave a measure, a really satisfying measure of finality, right, you are the final word on what Texas law is, what it means.
My current court of course, I serve now on an intermediate court, but I sit with two different people every month, and this month I could be sitting with someone from Jackson, Mississippi or Shreveport, Louisiana and next month it will be two different colleagues and two different colleagues the month after that.
So there’s a bit more sort of isolation, you are not under the same roof anymore down the hall from each other, able to poke your head in and sit down face-to-face and talk one-to-one. So things are a lot more driven by emails and memos. There is just not as much interpersonal, face-to-face contact as before.
And of course, the docket is radically different. It is really exhilarating to wade into some really weighty federal questions and I have thoroughly enjoyed expanding, hopefully, refining, sharpening my judicial toolkit.
I do miss my discretionary docket and I remember before I took this job I spoke with a number of friends of mine who had been State High Court judges who were now on federal appellate courts, and to a person they all really missed their discretionary docket, having control over the cases they hear, but they all universally were so exhilarated at the exciting array of high stakes, federal questions they get to decide and it was a new and fresh professional chapter for them.
So I am looking forward to throwing myself full throttle into my day job for the next generation with no thought of reelection or inelegant fundraising or any of that.
When I took my first judicial oath 4,717 days ago, I was a 30-something father of one and today I am a 50-something father of three and one day, God willing, I will become a grandfather while still serving as a jurist. It is a noble enterprise and I am so richly privileged to do it.
Rocky Dhir: Well, I am a 40-something father of one, and I am not a judge and I have never been in the White House, so you have just deflated my entire world, so thank you judge for that.
But look, let’s talk for a second about your types of cases, the kinds of cases that really, really fascinated you. Of course, I am not asking for specific case names, but are there issues that when they come across your desk or when they did come across your desk, when you were at the Texas Supreme Court that you thought okay, this is what I come to work for everyday, this is the fun stuff? Have you ever given that any thought? Is there a type of case or a type of question or a type of argument that just really lit your fire when you were on the bench?
Judge Don Willett: Sure. At my former court there was no shortage of high stakes, high drama consequential cases and some of them were worth billions of dollars. And of course at my former court having discretionary review, by and large the ones we took were as a rule pretty complex and pretty weighty and where lower courts perhaps had disagreed on what the law is or what it requires, so they were all uniformly high stakes and meaningful.
But the ones I think that really were of special interest to me were those who raised questions of constitutional architecture, how does our Constitution, both Texas and federal, how does it allocate governing power. When I was going through law school I did a political science sort of graduate degree at the same time and I have always had a fascination with government, with public service and public policy, and I have spent I guess now 22 of my 25 lawyer years working in one branch of government or another on the state or federal level. So I have got a fascination with government, with how the Constitution divvies up governing powers.
So those cases, those dealing with kind of building block elemental issues of constitutional architecture, those really jumped out and were of special interest to me. There were plenty of them then and maybe even more regular now in my current docket.
But some of the cases we heard on my former court were important certainly for what we held, but just as important in my view as a judge is why we held the way we did, how we reached that conclusion, not so much who won, but why.
I remember mentioning how my former court, the Supreme Court is a pretty text-centric court, a court unwilling to revise statutes under the guise of interpreting them. So often even as important as the holding, who eventually prevailed with how we got there methodologically and methodology is — you really can’t overstate the importance of how judges decide.
I have a reading list for my incoming law clerks every year. It’s a pretty lengthy reading list, but a lot of it is about judicial decision making, about methodology, about the interpretation of language. Again, that’s sort of the lion’s share of modern day appellate judging.
So I have got a really keen interest, not so much in who wins, but why and how and how does the court reason its way to a conclusion. That’s what makes the judiciary, in my view, again the most elegant branch. We are the only branch really expected to explain why we are doing what we are doing. We reason our way methodically, step-by-step to a conclusion, which I find really satisfying intellectually.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think that as lawyers we understand that or do you think when we are approaching a case, be it at the trial level or at the appellate level, do we need to do a better job of sort of focusing on the why, not so much that we win, but why we should win?
Judge Don Willett: No, I think lawyers as a group get that. I think advocates, especially skilled and experienced appellate specialists, they get that consummately. I think the general public often they look at who won a case and who lost a case and then they either cheer it or jeer it based on their own sort of preexisting policy preference, but I think that just sort of maybe betrays a fundamental kind of misperception about the judiciary.
I don’t have a dog in these fights and it doesn’t really matter to me who wins or loses, but I am all about, as best I can, doing my dead level best to apply these principles evenhandedly and impartially. But I think there is a fair bit of kind of civic illiteracy, not just about the judicial branch, but about government from soup to nuts.
We inhabit an age of really staggering specific ignorance. There is a survey done every year around Constitution Day, which is of course in September, and the most recent one found that barely a quarter of all American adults, 26% could correctly name all three branches of government and a full third, 33% could not name even one branch of government. 37% could not name one right guaranteed under the First Amendment. More people can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.
And even a few years ago there was a member of Congress on one of the Sunday news programs who said yeah, we have got three branches of government, we have a House, then we have a Senate and we have a President. And I am like come on man, what about my branch? What my daughter calls the branch with the costumes.
But Judge Judy I think just turned 75 and 10% of American college graduate believe that Judge Judy serves on the US Supreme Court.
Rocky Dhir: Oh good Lord, okay.
Judge Don Willett: And it is one thing not to know dry, sort of arcane factoids like the year the Constitution was signed, right, 1787?
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Judge Don Willett: But it’s petrifying that so many of our fellow citizens, they flub even the most foundational concepts like separation of powers and checks and balances.
So I mean the first three words of the Constitution are we the people, not we the government, not we the judges, not we the subjects, not we the anything else, it’s we the people.
And Justice Brandeis in the last century, I think he put it well. He said the only title in our democracy superior to that of president is that of citizen. Ultimate authority rests with us. Meaning government is only going to be as great or as responsive as we demand it to be, and this Constitution we have, this exquisite charter of freedom, Madison’s handiwork, it requires fierce defenders and not feeble spectators. So I think we have to get back as a nation. We have to get back into the civic education game. We have to educate young people about our constitutional heritage.
Rocky Dhir: How do we as lawyers do that?
Judge Don Willett: I think lawyers are uniquely suited, given their legal horsepower, given their familiarity day-to-day with the building blocks of how government works, but hopefully, lawyers can be inspired by people like Justice O’Connor. Since leaving the Supreme Court in 2005, she has devoted her life to civic education and she doesn’t pull any punches.
She says, I think this is a pretty accurate quote, knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool, and she is right. This is not something hardwired into our DNA as Americans, the habits of citizenship. They must be taught and learned anew by every generation, just as you would teach and learn math or reading or foreign language.
And President Reagan said freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream, and that’s true. There was a recent survey that asked American adults 10 questions from the US Citizenship Test that is given annually to immigrants every year who want to become Americans.
So a recent survey asked Americans 10 questions from the test.
Rocky Dhir: Do I even want to know?
Judge Don Willett: I don’t think so. Hope you are sitting down, 71% could not identify the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, 63% could not name one of their US senators, 62% could not identify the Governor of their state. And this is sort of my hobbyhorse now and it’s sort of what I speak about most often around the country and I just try to tell people that American citizenship is immeasurably precious, but it is not a spectator sport.
Rocky Dhir: That’s an interesting observation. Let’s drill down into that. What do you mean by spectator sport? Who do you think the spectators are in this version of it that you are describing?
Judge Don Willett: As I said earlier, I think because the Constitution vests ultimate authority with us, with we the people, government is only going to be as responsive and as great as we demand it to be.
There is this great story, classic story of Benjamin Franklin. So it’s 1787, the Constitutional Convention is wrapped up. Everybody is exiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A woman rushes up to Ben Franklin and says, well doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? And Dr. Franklin famously replies, a republic, if you can keep it.
So Franklin knew the most vital ingredient for America to work is an engaged citizenry. It’s why Brandeis said the only title in our democracy superior to that of president is that of citizen. And I think every year these survey results on Constitution Day, they get worse and more dispiriting and more disheartening. And I think we have really — we inhabit this age of really staggering civic illiteracy. It’s really stunning.
Rocky Dhir: So now that you are no longer running for election, are you still planning on using social media? And if so, is that going to be the message on your social media feeds? Are you going to be trying to educate people and encourage them to know more about our government and our democracy?
Judge Don Willett: Honestly, I am unsure if I will return or not. I hope to. I think there is enormous civic education upside in humanizing and demystifying the judicial branch.
That said, appellate judging is an intensely collegial enterprise, and above all, I want to be an effective member of this court, and to be effective, you must forge fruitful, collegial, respectful relationships with your colleagues.
And membership on my court spans generations and more senior members of my court came of age in a time where social media wasn’t ubiquitous, wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now. I do know of a handful of federal appellate judges who are on Twitter, but more in a passive lurker capacity, not really actively turning out content.
And I certainly, I am on every day, kind of keeping track of all the warp-speed happenings in the world. Twitter is my primary newsfeed. It’s how I stay abreast of what’s going on in the wider world.
I am not sure if I will return; if I did, I imagine the content would probably change, the frequency and the content would likely change; it would probably be almost entirely civic education focused, trying to up our nation’s civics IQ.
But I tell you, it has been somewhat refreshing to be on sabbatical for a while. It’s been sort of a burden lifted, because it does require some attention, some energy, some care and feeding.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think that maybe we are in some ways over-engaged with social media and with the 24-hour news cycle and just all this information being thrown at us as opposed to the old days when you just had news in the morning and in the evening? Do you think maybe it’s over-engaging us in certain ways to where we are just — we are getting burned out, maybe it’s not that we are disengaged, we are just not engaged in the right ways?
It’s just a hypothesis, but after hearing you speak, I wanted to kind of throw that out there. What do you think of that?
Judge Don Willett: It’s a fair comment and I think it goes to a larger point of the increasing tendency among Americans who sort of self-segregate, self-isolate, ideologically and philosophically.
There was a great book, came out 10 or 15 years ago, called ‘The Big Sort’ and it was about this growing phenomenon across America of people to sort of hunker down in the sort of self-reinforcing silos.
Rocky Dhir: I guess echo chambers as they call them.
Judge Don Willett: Echo chambers. So the neighborhood in which you live, the schools your children attend, the cable stations you listen to, the radio talk shows you listen to, the folks on Twitter you follow and don’t follow. Are you simply sort of inhabiting this world where you are getting this constant reinforcement of your already held beliefs or are you exposed to an eclectic way of thinking about and seeing the world?
I mean on Twitter, I follow a pretty wide diverse mix of people, which I think makes life interesting. But I think a lot of people are content just to kind of be surrounded by 24/7, they read things, they listen to things, they watch things that simply sort of reinforce their already held beliefs, and I think life is richer when you do it the other way.
But certainly Twitter, the forced concision of it, Twitter is not the best forum for nuanced, deep engagement on weighty issues, that forced concision, it’s really hard to find the just right blend of content and nuance, that brevity is really kind of at odds with kind of rich sort of understanding.
So it’s been nice to kind of take a break for a while and I still — again, I still follow a range of people and it’s how I stay on top of everything percolating around the globe, but I do encourage people with their friendships, both real and digital, to hang out with a wide eclectic mix of people, which I think makes life immeasurably rich.
Rocky Dhir: Makes for a more interesting dinner party, for sure, doesn’t it?
Judge Don Willett: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Well, now, looking back, what do you think we as lawyers and even the general public can learn about maybe the ethics or maybe the reputational factors behind social media? What are some good do’s and don’ts that you tried to employ when you were active on social media?
Judge Don Willett: Sure. Well, as a judge with — as with anything, judges must be judicious; whether they are crafting a 280 footnote opinion or a 280 character tweet. So I always diligently self-censored and I aimed for carefulness.
And a few cardinal rules, I never talked about pending cases or disputed legal or cultural issues that could come before me. As I mentioned, I didn’t throw partisan sharp elbows or try to score cheap political points. I just tried to keep things light and witty and engaging.
I think I navigated the ethical boundaries fairly well. Thankfully, the head of the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission would use me in trainings on social media to baby judges. She would use me, not as a cautionary tale, not as a case study in don’t let this happen to you, but thankfully as an example of how a judge can harness social media effectively and ethically.
And there are also some legal ethics casebooks that are now discussing judicial use of social media, and I am glad they cite me as someone who did so in a way that demystified the judiciary, but also in a way that did not detract from the dignity of the judiciary.
But there is no question that more use of social media means more bad use of social media and lawyers and judges are continually falling prey to Facebook fumbles and Twitter misfires, just a lot of ethical pitfalls. But I think people have to remember that, especially judges, you have always got to be judicious, and Twitter is just a method of communication. It is no different than standing on a stage behind a microphone. And the immediacy of it, that digital platform is pretty remarkable. Things can go viral in the blink of an eye, but I think you just have to be mindful that it’s just a method of communication and the same canons of judicial conduct, the same ethical rules for lawyers apply to social media as they do to any other means of messaging.
Rocky Dhir: Well judge, I want to thank you for all the wisdom you have been imparting to us today. I do have one final question, if you don’t mind, because you have been very generous with your time with us.
Judge Don Willett: Go ahead.
Rocky Dhir: You were on the Texas Supreme Court for about 12 years and now you have been on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for about six months now I think. So if we were to fast forward another 12 years and you had to look back, what do you think the Don Willet from 12 years from now is going to say reflecting back on this next 12 years that you are about to embark on? What do you think is going to be your answer to that question?
Judge Don Willett: Well, I think I have certainly endured my final job interview. In the drawer next to me I have got business cards from every job I have ever held, from law school graduation to the present, spanning 25 years. I am about to take them and get them framed, just kind of showing the sort of professional journey that I have been on.
Rocky Dhir: You were a rodeo bull rider too, you didn’t mention that, so do you have a business card from that era?
Judge Don Willett: I don’t, but the lesson I learned from rodeo bull riding is, life is uncertain and you have got to hold on tight and you would be surprised at how handy that bull riding comes in serving on a multi-member appellate court.
But I used to be a rodeo bull rider and a drummer. I would perform as a professional drummer in different bands, performing in clubs and bars all over the Dallas area. But I love what I do. It’s a magic combination to love what you do and believe that it matters, believe that it counts.
I know a lot of people who are well compensated, but somewhat disenchanted, somewhat dissatisfied, somewhat unfulfilled, and I have been enormously blessed with a really rich measure of divine happenstance to have a series of jobs I love and none more than judging.
So I want to throw myself full throttle into my day job for the next generation. And the founders, they were very concerned about the judiciary and about judicial independence. The Declaration of Independence itself mentions judicial independence.
One of our biggest beefs with King George the III was, as the Declaration puts it, he has made judges dependent on his will alone. It was part of what the Declaration described as this long train of abuses and usurpations and the revolution produced this revolutionary design, these three separate coequal branches; ambition, counteracting ambition, as Madison put it. Including Article III, which enshrines judicial independence, which endows judges, federal judges with constitutional Kevlar, life tenure, which I think has proven indispensable to the success of the republic.
So go back 2,000 years and Socrates said four things belong to a judge, to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially. And I believe we are, as John Adams declared, a nation of laws and not of men, and I think judges must be independent, but we can never be independent of the Constitution or of the laws that we are sworn to uphold.
So my pledge today and everyday and 12 years from today will be to never shrink from that sacred oath.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Well, I don’t think we could ask for anything more. So Judge Willett, you have been so very gracious and generous with your time here. I know this gives us all a lot to think about and a lot to reflect on, so I want to thank you for joining us.
Judge Don Willett: I have been delighted. I have been thrilled to join you. Thanks so much for having me.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely. And I want to thank you, dear listeners, for joining us.
This is the State Bar of Texas Podcast. I am your host Rocky Dhir. It’s been a pleasure having you with us today.
And remember, life is a journey folks, so thank you for tuning in.
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The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of nor are they endorsed by the State Bar of Texas, Legal Talk Network, or their respective officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, or subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
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