Short Take: The Tweeter Laureate Of The Fifth

Life moves fast these days. It was only Wednesday when Judge Kopf chose as an example of bootlicking the very twitter-popular justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Don Willett. By Thursday, Justice Willett had been nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by Trump. Coincidence?

Judge Kopf’s issue wasn’t Justice Willett’s brilliance, his integrity, and certainly not his sense of humor.

But Willett’s Twitter stuff is thin gruel. I readily agree he is funny, that he paints an accessible face on the Texas Supreme Court, that he is sometimes heartwarming, and that he is always a loyal homer for his God and our America. But what does Willett contribute to a substantive dialogue between the bench, the bar, and the public when he tweets?

Not much, in my estimation. Even though Judge Willett is brilliant, I surmise that he doesn’t want to defend himself on social media from substantive yet penetrating criticism of his libertarian judicial views. Given his talents, that is a shame.

This, of course, begged the question, whether it’s a good thing for a judge to interact with the bench, bar and public with substantive dialogue. Justice Willett’s twitter popularity was undeniable. Even his twitter bio reflected his wit and folksiness.

Among libertarian academics, Willett was an icon, with his decision on the regulatory requirements to be licensed as an eyebrow threader the stuff of legend. They could not have been more thrilled by the nomination.

But the Texas Supreme Court is peculiar in that its jurisdiction extends only to civil matters. Texas, being Texas, has another “supreme court” to handle criminal matters, and Justice Willett wasn’t on that court. So, in anticipation of his Senate confirmation to the Circuit, which will decide both civil and criminal appeals, I wondered what his more than 25,800 twits would reveal about a judge who, from all appearances, has never decided a criminal case in his career. Would he be more Sam Alito or Wild Bill Douglas? With a libertarian bent, it’s hard to say.

Notably, I’m not the only one taking a look at what Justice Willett has to say on the twitters.

Obviously, he’s quite a popular guy. And let’s be real, judges tend not to enjoy the same level of adoration as a Kardashian, yet 100,000 followers on the twitters suggests that he’s doing something very right.

So I looked at his twits. They were surprisingly witty in many instances, dad jokes and puns notwithstanding. Perhaps the best example is his pinned twit.

To be sure, this is a brilliant twit. Does it reflect anything about a judge? Does it tell us that he’s a deeply religious person, a basketball fan, likes photography or just saw a moment and made the most of it? If it was anyone but a judge, why would anyone care? But he is a judge, and he will be making decisions that will change people’s lives, so it’s hardly unfair to ponder whether this is significant or just one hell of a great twit.

Justice Willett enjoys the adulation of the obsequious lawyers who lack the capacity to distinguish between good judges and bad. They kiss judge butt no matter what so as to bask in the validation of a reply or, god willing, a retwit. But what does Justice Willett get out of it?

After reading through a great many of his twits, I admire the wit, the effort he’s put into his twits to be funny, endearing, and uncontroversial. But I don’t have a clue whether he’ll grant a stay of execution or lock the courthouse doors to prevent a last minute habe.

But then, it’s just twitter. Sure, there are substantive twits, but there are quips as well. And no shortage of monumentally stupid twits. Is it wrong to expect too much of the medium?

At the risk of comparing yet another thing to jazz, Twitter has always been the jazz of the internet. It’s just as much about what you can’t fit as what you can.

Justice Willett is adept at fitting in what he wanted to fit in. Presumably, the absence of any insight into him as a judge was his choice. We know he’s likable. We know he’s witty. We know that he enjoys the validation he receives from sycophants. We just don’t know much about him as a judge. Do I ask too much?

13 thoughts on “Short Take: The Tweeter Laureate Of The Fifth

  1. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Yesterday, as you say, Justice Willett’s path to the Fifth Circuit opened like Dorothy’s yellow brick road. And, as you say, Willett is a hero to libertarians who seek to reinvigorate the judicial activism of the Lochner era. It is “economic liberty,” don’t ya know. Willett’s concurrence in the case you reference was a full-blown attack on Justice Holmes and Holmes’ disdain for overarching constitutional theories.

    Ironically, yesterday something else of significance happened. US District Judge Ralph Erickson from North Dakota was confirmed and will sit on the 8th Circuit. The Senate confirmed Ralph 95-1 with one “no” Thursday from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

    Unlike Willett, Ralph, a country lawyer turned really good judge, has his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to fancy jurisprudential theories. Ralph told the Judiciary Committee:

    At the end of the day, I think intellectual honesty requires a judge just to work as we can (and) not be so wedded to any individual theory that it trumps reason. . . . Kind of my philosophy is, you follow the law, follow the law, follow the law up until the point that it looks completely crazy, and then you say, “hold on, wait a minute, stop.”

    Ralph’s pragmatism gives me comfort. Willett, on the other hand, gives me the willies. Thankfully, I sit in the Eighth Circuit.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      Oddly enough, brother Gamso offered these words of wisdom today.

      The best, most logical argument in the world ain’t worth shit if the judge doesn’t buy it. Arrant nonsense that the judge accepts? BINGO!

      It’s a real world business this lawyering thing. And so, and I know this will make some lawprofs cry, day-to-day and case-by-case I don’t really care how we should understand/interpret/analyze/whatever the Constitution.

      Funny how different the legal world looks from the trenches.

      1. Richard Kopf

        SHG,

        Have grown up in Toledo, Ohio where I horribly misspent my youth drinking 3.2 beer and getting into fist fights (more about that next Wednesday), I have a particular affection for Gamso and a very high regard for his real-world experiences and views. I wonder whether it is a coincidence that Jeff spent time practicing criminal law in Toledo where one must learn to take a punch both figuratively, and, in my case, literally.

        All the best.

        RGK

  2. Kathryn Kase

    While the Texas Supreme Court does not decide criminal cases, it does decide appeals of prosecutions in juvenile court. Review of those opinions provides insight into Justice Willett’s views of the criminal law.

  3. Matthew S Wideman

    I often read Justice Willet’s tweets, although I am not a Twitter follower. I would have applauded his appointment to the federal bench just because he is “hip and tweets”. After this post I am actually wondering what his opinions are and if he is a “good judge”. Thank you SHG for providing the “anti-bootlicker” tonic for my morning thoughts.

    Kathryn Case, I will actually read some of his opinions when I get back in the office.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “hip and tweets” thing is what makes this dangerous. Are cute twits enough of a reason to support a judge? This isn’t to say that Justice Willett doesn’t deserve complete support, but that the impression left by “hip and tweets” confuses his likability with his judicial positions. We may adore a guy on the twitters, but that doesn’t mean we want him on the Circuit.

  4. Miles

    Thinking back to the tangential issue raised by Gregg on Judge Kopf’s post, I can see Justice Willett arguing that “it’s just twitter,” and so it’s just for fun and no one should expect anything of substance from him. That’s the sort of lie that provides cover for the bootlickers.

    1. SHG Post author

      People who have a working familiarity with twitter already know that it’s a lie to contend that there is nothing serious or informative on twitter. While it’s hardly a good medium for thoughtful discussion, it’s still capable of more than cute pics and the occasional vapid platitude.

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