It’s not every day that you’re in the same room with the Dean of #appellatetwitter, the sixth-most followed judicial officer on Twitter, and the source of the viral video #lawyercat. Friday, November 13, 2021, was that day for many AJEI participants, all of whom gathered to hear these distinguished panelists share the good, the bad, and the ugly of the social media world.
As an initial matter, it was noteworthy that all three speakers prefer Twitter as their main form of social media interaction. All three consider LinkedIn to be a more formal medium of communication and use it rarely. Additionally, the speakers shared a general consensus that Facebook has little value outside of its large user base, many of whom are inundated with content of questionable origin and intent. To put it plainly, Facebook is the dumpster fire of the social media world.
Raffi Melkonian, the aforementioned Dean of #appellatetwitter, served as mediator, though his experience as an appellate attorney using social media made him more of a panelist. He was an early online adopter, creating a blog in 2002, before most people knew what a blog was, and before he was a lawyer. He joined Twitter in 2012 and has amassed over 49,000 followers. Melkonian is an appellate practitioner in Texas at the firm Wright, Close & Barger LLP.
The Honorable Bridget Mary McCormack is the sixth-most followed judicial officer on Twitter. She joined Twitter in 2011 and found it to be an effective communication tool during her 2012 campaign for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. Chief Justice McCormack has served on that court since 2013.
Judge Roy Ferguson probably never wanted to be the source of a video that would become fodder for late night comedy and spurn memes and parody videos. He joined Twitter in 2014, after deciding Facebook was a “seething cauldron of hate” and preferring Twitter’s content curation tools. Judge Ferguson presides over the largest judicial district in Texas, encompassing approximately 20,000 square miles including twenty percent of the U.S.-Mexico border, and has done so since 2013.
Each panelist uses Twitter in different ways. As an attorney, Melkonian related that he considers the time he spends tweeting and retweeting, sometimes as much as thirty to fifty times a day, as an investment in future revenue. His presence on social media allows him to connect with practitioners across the country. The community he has cultivated as part of #appellatetwitter is a valuable resource to many and is more collaborative than any water cooler could ever be. Melkonian related how the #appellatetwitter community has not only yielded legal tactics, but also anecdotal tips useful outside the courtroom. He credits his online colleagues with the advice to bring quarters to a SCOTUS argument–cell phones and other personal items are not allowed in the courtroom, and the lockers provided accept only quarters.
Chief Justice McCormack sees interaction on social media as a powerful tool to improve the reputation of the judiciary. She noted the results of the National Center for States Courts’ 2021 State of the State Courts, which reported an over ten percent decrease from previous years in public confidence in state courts, attorneys, and judges. As the same report indicated over ninety-five percent of the respondents had access to the internet, Chief Justice McCormack feels that posting on social media about the positive role that courts play could improve public sentiment. While she does not post on a regular basis, Chief Justice McCormack is an avid lurker and posts the success stories of those who have completed their time in one of Michigan’s 188 treatment courts, which focus on rehabilitation in an effort to reduce incarceration.
Chief Justice McCormack also emphasized the importance of social media to efforts aimed at humanizing the judiciary and taking some notoriety from more high-profile media cases that may disparage or seemingly make a mockery of the courtroom. She noted that some cases prominently featured in the media made 99.9% of all hearings look bad, when the exact opposite is true. It is the duty of members of the judiciary and courts themselves to take charge of the headlines and illustrate the important, positive role that courts play in society.
Judge Roy Ferguson shared Chief Justice McCormack’s opinion that a more visible judiciary leads to an increase in public confidence. During the lockdown months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Ferguson used Twitter to give practitioners and litigants technology tips to ensure their virtual courtroom experience went smoothly. It was one of these tips that sent Judge Ferguson from behind the bench into the spotlight.
Midday on February 9, 2021, Judge Ferguson tweeted, “IMPORTANT ZOOM TIP: If a child used your computer, before you join a virtual hearing check the Zoom Video Options to be sure filters are off. This kitten just made a formal announcement on a case in the 394th (sound on). #lawtwitter #OhNo[.]” With the video accompanying the tweet, Judge Ferguson unleashed #lawyercat into the world. Judge Ferguson described the experience of going viral as one of the scariest and most isolating moment he’s experienced. Once the retweets began, his phone would not stop vibrating from Twitter notifications but his email, voicemail, and website froze from the deluge of online traffic. After calling the Texas State Bar and his personal attorney, Judge Ferguson decided to take control of the situation in the only way he knew how–by directing the narrative into a positive experience and example. Later that day he tweeted, “These fun moments are a by-product of the legal profession’s dedication to ensuring that the justice system continues to function in these tough times. Everyone involved handled it with dignity, and the filtered lawyer showed incredible grace. True professionalism all around!”
These anecdotes served as social media street cred and the panelists focused the remainder of their presentation on giving the audience pointers for safe and effective social media use. All three agreed that they accept all follower requests and only block those who personally attack them or whose comments are gross or vulgar. Melkonian noted that accepting every request builds his network; Chief Justice McCormack and Judge Ferguson indicated that accepting every request increased transparency and removes any appearance of bias.
When asked if they were concerned about their use of social media running afoul of any professional responsibility rules or judicial canons, they all emphasized the importance of recognizing that nothing on the internet is truly anonymous and remembering that, one way or another, everyone can see what is posted–including the subject of a post. Judge Ferguson noted that for every comment or post he makes, he has deleted at least three others before posting. Relatedly, Melkonian reminded the audience to have thick skin–there will be people who disagree with a post, and sometimes they will not be kind in their dissent. Chief Justice McCormack added that despite the risks, the opportunity for positive interaction on social media is tremendous.
The session ended all too soon, as it was clear all the panelists could speak for hours on the subject and there were many in the audience with nuanced questions about the proper use of social media. Their presentation, and this article, can be supplemented by following @RMFifthCircuit, @JudgeFergusonTX, and @BridgetMaryMc on Twitter.