This month we are sharing a selection of pieces from The Federalist Society's Liberty Month in July 2015. We hope you enjoy reading them.
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We inhabit an age of staggering civic illiteracy. Exhibit A: Just 36% of Americans can name all three branches of government. Exhibit B: 35% can’t name a single one. As George Washington famously tweeted, “I can’t even.”
The judicial branch—“The one with the costumes!” as my daughter describes it—is the obscurest: black robes, snooty Latin, impenetrable legalese. Notwithstanding the annual June drama surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court’s end-of-Term blockbusters, the judiciary is utterly mysterious. People know far more about American Idol judges than Supreme Court judges.
A few SCOTUS Justices, however, have name IDs that flirt with double-digits. They embark on splashy book tours, appear on 60 Minutes, inspire plays and biopics (Natalie Portman as Justice Ginsburg), boast Tumblr pages (Notorious RBG!). The Court, for all its inscrutability, has its media moments.
Knowledge about the judiciary, however, seems inversely proportional to the branch’s importance. For better or worse, the judiciary ultimately decides the lion’s share of front-page controversies roiling America. And the 45th president will likely have multiple SCOTUS appointments, cementing the Court’s philosophical trajectory for a generation.
But while SCOTUS hogs the spotlight, 90-plus percent of American justice is dispensed in state courts. How can the judicial branch up its civic game—removing distance and boosting transparency?
Harnessing technology is indispensable to openness, and my Court is at the vanguard—webcasting and archiving oral arguments, providing free, online access to court records, and letting Texans file documents electronically.
Social media is another fruitful way for the judiciary to engage citizens. Judges are elected in 39 states, and Americans increasingly consume information online. If you’re a Texas Supreme Court Justice hopscotching across 254 counties, trying to tattoo your name onto the noggins of millions of voters, you must find creative ways to raise visibility and build awareness. Twitter, Facebook, etc. are low-cost but high-yield ways to leverage the support of key influencers and opinion leaders. Bottom line: It’s political malpractice not to engage people smartly via social media.
I’m probably the most avid social-media judge in America—which is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. It’s a bar so low it’s subterranean. But apparently I’m part of the Twitterati (think Illuminati, but with gavels). I was recently designated Tweeter Laureate of Texas, which apparently is a thing. As I once told @WilliamShatner, I’m “boldly going where no Justice has gone before.”
A few cardinal rules: No discussing cases that could appear before me, and no partisan sharp elbows. I try to keep things witty and light, regaling followers with my random musings on sports, culture, parenthood, law.
People are genuinely amazed that a nerdy judge can be engaging, and believe me, my geekery is on an uber-elite level. But it’s rare for a Supreme Court Justice to step out from behind the bench and demystify things. Folks are astounded that “judge” isn’t a synonym for “humorless Luddite.”
Judges, though, must always be judicious, whether crafting a 140-footnote opinion or a 140-character tweet. There are stories galore about judges who misstep online, discussing pending cases or veering into politics. Legal ethicists are playing catch-up to devise social-media guidance for judges. In a 2013 ethics opinion, the American Bar Association gave judges a thumbs-up to engage voters via social media, calling it “a valuable tool for public outreach,” but urging caution, as with anything.
I diligently self-censor, always pausing before hitting the “tweet” button. Succinctness is the enemy of nuance, and Twitter’s forced concision is tricky. There’s a hardwired tension between brevity and clarity. Mastering the mix of precision, tone, and context in 140 characters is mighty tough.
Would I tweet if I didn’t run for office? Maybe, but I’d certainly use Twitter to stay abreast of warp-speed happenings in the world and to enjoy the musings of smart, fascinating people. Twitter is a neat, one-stop compilation of smart, incisive viewpoints on every imaginable topic from a riveting cross-section of folks.
Judges on social media must be juris-prudent, always honoring our distinctive constitutional role. I take my job seriously, if not myself. The law is a majestic thing, and when citizens confer the title "Justice" on someone, they place in human hands that profound majesty.
Sam Houston was right: “an able, honest, and enlightened judiciary should be the first object of every people.” Citizens must have utmost confidence in their judiciary and not see judges as robed, ideological crusaders seeking to gratify a personal agenda. Courts must always behave judicially by adjudicating, never politically by legislating.
Finally, as President Washington recommended, “Follow @JusticeWillett.”