Faculty Journal Articles and Book Chapters

Twitter and the #So-Called Judge

Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Southern Methodist University, Dedman School of Law


Two-hundred-eighty characters may be insufficient to deliver a treatise on the judiciary, but it is more than enough to deliver criticism of the third branch of government. Today, these tweeted critiques sometimes come not from the general public but from the President himself. Attacks such as these come at a challenging time for court systems. We live in a highly politicized, polarized society. This polarization is reflected in attitudes toward the courts, particularly the federal courts. Unfortunately, public doubts about the court system come at a time when public understanding of the structure of government, and especially the court system, is abysmally low.

All of this context raises a number of related questions. When the prolific executive tweeter calls out a federal judge, is President Trump just venting or has he tapped into a strong subset of American opinion on the judiciary? And, if so, does a “so-called judge” have a role in engaging, informing, perhaps even rebutting these opinions? Further, could 280 characters be an effective platform to use in fulfilling that role?

This article will address the specific issue of judges using Twitter to promote the interests of the courts as institutions. After section II’s brief description of the mechanics of Twitter, section III will discuss why and how judges communicate through Twitter. Section IV will sound a note of caution based on two factors: 1) a web of judicial ethics rules that limit judicial speech (including Twitter); and 2) the nature of the Twitter experience and the way people use it, which can hinder attempts to effectively reach the desired audience.

The article will conclude by arguing that in this day and age, when much of America gets its news from social media and those platforms are being used to delegitimize the judiciary, the third branch can ill afford to disengage. Judicial tweeting, within the limits of the ethics rules, should be encouraged rather than shunned.