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From Internet Sensation to Silence: Why Has Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett Stopped Tweeting?

Law.com, October 27, 2017

By: John Council

For a man who considers himself  “the most avid social-media judge in America”, Don Willett’s monthlong silence on Twitter is almost deafening.

Willett became an internet sensation last year after President Donald Trump, during the election campaign, named the Texas Supreme Court Justice one of 11 people he’d consider naming to the U.S. Supreme Court — even though Willett had jovially mocked Trump in numerous tweets.

All must have been forgiven between the two avid Twitter users because on Sept. 28, Trump nominated Willett to a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

“No Words,” Willett tweeted that day, thanking Trump from his account which now features a black-robed judge with a cowboy hat riding the blue Twitter bird as if it were a bucking bronco. And since Sept. 28, Willett hasn’t posted a single tweet. There have been no funny musings on the law, no pop culture references, and not a solitary update on the “wee Willetts” —  his three young children.

Willett declined to comment about his decision to halt his use of Twitter.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht notes that the U.S. Department of Justice usually advises judicial nominees not to make public statements while the U.S. Senate is considering confirmation.

“The advice is always to have a low a profile as you can during confirmation process — don’t do anything that would draw attention,” said Hecht, nothing the same advice was given to Fifth Circuit Justice Priscilla Owen, who was promoted from the Texas Supreme Court to the Fifth Circuit by then-President George W. Bush in 2005. Willett was later appointed to the Texas high court by then-Gov. Rick Perry to replace Owen.

Evan Young, a partner in the Austin office of Baker Botts who is friends with Willett, said the judicial nominee’s absence from Twitter is notable, but understandable.

“Given Justice Willett’s prominence on Twitter, his comparative silence Sept. 28 has been widely noted, to put it mildly. But it is not just Twitter silence,” Young said.

Like all nominees for the federal bench, Willett is stepping back from all public speaking — not just tweeting — but speeches, interviews and all other forms of public communication, aside from this work on the Texas Supreme Court, Young said.

“It only seems like a special Twitter limitation because so many people looked forward every day to what would issue forth from @JusticeWillett—and some (including me) are going through withdrawal,” Young said. “But as the Senate considers his and other nominations, it’s entirely appropriate for all those nominees to step back and let the nomination process run its course.”

Willett, who likes to keep his tweets lighthearted and humorous, has two cardinal rules about the medium: He never discusses cases that may come before him and he refuses to engage in what he calls “political bomb throwing.” He primarily tweets to educate the public about the judiciary and to raise his own profile in a state where judges must run for office and judicial name I.D. among voters is extremely low.

“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,” Willett told Texas Lawyer in an interview last year.

“I began using Twitter as a political communications tool, but over time it’s become my primary news feed — the best way 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,” Willett said in that interview.

Assuming Willett is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, many of his followers wonder if the new Fifth Circuit Justice will pick his Twitter handle up where he left off.

“That is the million-dollar question,” said Brantley Starr, a deputy Texas attorney general who served as Willett’s first law clerk on the high court.

“It’s a close call. The reason he tweets now is completely understandable by structure,” noting that Willett uses his account to raise both his political profile and educate the public about the life of a judge.

But federal judges are more isolated from the public and rarely use Twitter, Starr said. However, some public contact among federal judges is encouraged, including teaching at law schools and giving public speeches about the judiciary, he said.

“The structural incentive is not the same,” Starr said of the potential for Willett tweeting as a Fifth Circuit judge. “Maybe it’s so ingrained in his DNA. I could see him tweeting, maybe less, or maybe not at all.’’

Dallas appellate lawyer David Coale is doubtful that Willett’s Twitter use with be the same should he join the Fifth Circuit.

“On the federal bench it’s radio silence because nobody tweets. And if you’re the new guy you don’t want to come in blazing tweets,” Coale said. “He works and play wells with others.”

Coale, who also follows Willett on Twitter, said he misses the justice’s tweets.

“I wonder how the wee Willetts are doing?” Coale asked. “I hope they are doing well.’’