Of Tweeters Laureate and Judicious Public Outreach

Last week’s BC Provincial Court’s #AskChiefJudge Twitter Town Hall went off with nary a glitch, and even received some fanfare in the Vancouver Sun for its being the first (known) instance of a time when a Canadian chief judge has taken to Twitter to answer live questions. Dave Bilinsky and Colin Lachance both shared news of this last week.

It proved many things—one of them being 2010 really is a pretty long time ago.

The Courts’ Affair with Twitter Since 2010

Back in 2010 only a fraction of courts even held a Twitter handle—7% according to a CCPIO report of that year.

Recall that this was the year of the Arab Spring, and the spring of Twitter’s political foment. Courts, we may all take judicial notice here, are a more conservative bunch, but we have been approaching a tipping point only somewhat sluggishly ever since.

The @BCProvCourt account (which hosted #AskChiefJudge) was created in November 2011, still an age of early adoption being that in 2011 only 10.9% of courts reported using microblogging services like Twitter. By 2014, reports showed that 17.8% of courts had started using Twitter (see p. 16 of the 2014 CCPIO New Media Survey), making it the social media means of choice for courts. Primary uses of Twitter by courts listed by that report in 2014 was to:

  • release decisions
  • announce upcoming oral arguments
  • provide guidance on logistical issues especially in high-profile trials with intense media interest
  • provide routine information to the public

A Chief Judge featured in the above 2014 report, from the DC Court of Appeals, noted: “Twitter enables a certain nimbleness – we can respond to an individual hoping the response is helpful to all of our 2,000+ followers and we can tweet some good news out, hoping that our followers re-tweet the information to their followers, who in turn pass it along again to others.”

Leap forward to today, and there’s a growing recognition among the Bench that there may be something to the minimalist medium. We “live in a wired world where Twitter processes more than one billion tweets every 48 hours,” notes a recent article on judges’ use of social media in the February 2016 issue of Texas Bar Journal. One of the co-authors of that article happens to be not only a judge, but Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett), Texas’ official Tweeter Laureate… and not only that but a former rodeo bull rider. No, you can’t make this stuff up.

“Judges are free to use social media,” the piece continues, “a terrific, low-cost way to remove distance and demystify the judiciary. But they must exercise caution, taking care to honor the distinctive constitutional role they’ve taken on as well as the public’s confidence in the judiciary. Whether they’re crafting a 140-page opinion or a 140-character tweet, judges must always be judicious.”

The Twitter Bug

It certainly feels like the movement has merit and that #AskChiefJudge removed distance and helped demystify the BC Provincial Court. You get this sense in the Storify digest with its Q&As listed in easy reading order. And we can also quantify (at least rather loosely) this engagement. I compiled an archive of the event and spent a moment adding up the direct questions against the answers issued by the Court’s Twitter account. I was surprised to see that for 72 questions (not all used the hashtag, so tweets to @BCProvCourt were important to locate, and 18 of these questions were left in the week or so before the event), @BCProvCourt issued 100 direct answers.

This over-surplus of answers to questions is explained by the obvious fact that even a minimally thorough response can take more than 140 characters to carry out, and of course the Court wants to be careful. But you would also be hard pressed to find a serious question that the Court did not make some effort to respond to. And while I have some question about just how many lurking attendees were members of the public (my poll found all but 1 out of 18 attendees were court workers, law professionals or lawyers), it is obvious that by being available and willing to respond, the Court (and Chief Justice Crabtree most specifically), gave a wonderful impression and was a boon to the reputation of the administration of justice.

– Find Nate Russell on Twitter

Comments are closed.