Tweeting judges: a cautionary tale

A little over a year ago, I took a close look at the phenomenon of judges using Twitter. After examining the professional and ethical responsibilities of the judiciary, I concluded that “judges should not be afraid of using Twitter, as long as they employ it appropriately and with discretion.”

That conclusion still holds, and most judges who are regular Twitter users find a way to make it work without compromising their judicial roles.  But Twitter is still a dangerous medium, as Kansas judge Jeffry Jack is learning this week. Judge Jack, currently a Labette County trial judge, has been nominated by Governor Laura Kelly to the state’s Court of Appeals. But his nomination has run into strong opposition from state lawmakers, after they discovered a number of profane and inflammatory tweets from his account, many of which were directed to President Trump and other prominent conservatives.

To be sure, some Republican lawmakers were already predisposed to vote against Jack’s nomination, based on purely partisan factors such as his apparent support for gun control and the Affordable Care Act. But even Democratic legislators were taken aback by the ferocity and crudeness of Jack’s tweets:

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who attended a Friday news conference where Kelly nominated Jack, said some of the tweets do not demonstrate a proper judicial temperament.

“If these are genuine, I find them to be deeply troubling coming from a sitting judge,” Miller said.

Exactly. Judges, like all people, are entitled to their political views, and there is nothing wrong with holding those views very strongly. But the judiciary depends on its members displaying an even-handed temperament and maintaining a high level of professional behavior even in their personal lives. Judge Jack’s tweets do not display that temperament, and they raise questions not only about his fitness for an appellate court position, but also for maintaining his current trial job.

Yesterday, Governor Kelly withdrew Jack’s nomination. But don’t be surprised if his tweets become an issue if seeks to retain his trial seat when his current term ends in 2020.

This posted was edited on March 20 to correct the spelling of Judge Jack’s name.

Kansas weighs whether to shield the identity of jurors

Earlier this year, the Kansas District Judges Association proposed a bill that would shield the names of jurors from the public. The bill passed both houses of the Kansas legislature. But the Kansas Press Association challenged the bill before a final vote could be taken, arguing that the state courts had obligations of transparency, and that hiding the identity of jurors made it more difficult to hold the justice system accountable. The judges’ association agreed, and reached a compromise with the press association that would make jurors’ names and addresses available, but not other information about them. The changes are expected to be worked out in legislative conference committee.

This is a nice example of the courts and the press recognizing the difficulty of balancing individual privacy and public duty in the modern age, and working together to address the problem. There is no simple answer, and while a handful of states do shield the identity of jurors completely, the Kansas Press Association is correct that public obligations like jury duty require a degree of public accountability. If we want to maintain a public system of dispute resolution, every member of the public needs to take ownership of it in an appropriate way.