TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Apr 28, 2009

Journal Issue Date: May 2009

Journal Name: May 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 5

When I first heard my fellow lawyers using the word "twitter," I thought they were referring to the little birdie who co-starred on the Bugs Bunny Show ("I taught I taw a putty tat!") or a famous country music singer ("Hello, darling! Nice to see you! It's been a long time!") Recently, a young female attorney asked me whether I "twitter," and I was frankly embarrassed. Without hesitation, I replied, "Young lady, I will have you know that I have been happily married to the Judge for 28 years."

On another occasion, this same young lawyer asked me if I had ever googled myself, and I was just too shocked to respond.

Well, I have now learned that "twitter" is simply the latest and quickest means to send out a written message to your friends. Interestingly, I learned this from Sen. John McCain. No, the Senator and I are not Facebook buddies. (In fact, I am an ole yeller dog Democrat who is supporting President Obama in the hopes that he will make me the beneficiary of a federal bailout. I would even be willing to cap my pay at a half million bucks a year.)

While Sen. McCain did not send me a text message, I saw a report on CNN about how the Senator is now using "Twitter" to send out quick, concise messages to his "followers." Upon further investigation, I found that Twitter is a website where you can "tweet" out short messages (140 characters, tops) to anyone who has signed up to receive them. It is apparently a cross between a blog and an old ham radio.

Thirty years ago in the classic motion picture, Smokey and the Bandit, Jerry Reed would get on his CB radio and ask Burt Reynolds, "Hey, Bandit, you got your ears on, good buddy?" But if Hollywood now made yet another sequel (Smokey and the Bandit XXV), old Jerry would "twitter" the Bandit and ask, "You got your Blackberry on, good buddy?"

Twitter is but the latest phenomenon in "Short Attention-Span America," a nation in which everybody over the age of two has to be entertained constantly. We all walk around clutching our Blackberries and our iPhones, googling each other, which as an old Baptist I still firmly believe is something people should not do until they get married.

All this tweeting, texting and googling would be bad enough, but it is now starting to have an impact on the American legal system. Why? Simple. Care to guess who's doing a lot of tweeting these days? Jurors. You read that right, Tweety-Bird-breath!

According to a recent article in the New York Times (which I read on my Blackberry while sitting in court), jurors in trials across the country are being caught googling and tweeting when they are supposed to be listening to the proof. And some are even blogging reports from the jury box.

Last month, a federal judge in Florida declared a mistrial after no less than nine members of the jury admitted that during the course of the trial they had been doing Internet research on their iPhones and Blackberries.

Similarly, defense attorneys in Arkansas have recently asked a judge to overturn a $12 million dollar jury verdict after it was discovered that one of the jurors tweeted, "I just gave away TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS of somebody else's money."

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, defense attorneys in a federal corruption trial are arguing on appeal that the trial judge should have declared a mistrial. Why? During the trial, one of the jurors covered the proceeding on Facebook.

This could give a whole new meaning to the phrase "face a jury."

Well, there is, of course, a simple solution to all this courtroom tweeting. Jurors are simply going to be required to turn in their iPhones and Blackberries before they step into the jury box or retire to the jury room to tweet, er, I mean deliberate.

I just hope the judges don't take the next logical step and try to take the Blackberries and iPhones away from us trial lawyers. I do not tweet in the courtroom, nor do I wish to be twittered when I am in the midst of cross-examining a real live witness and trying to get him to sing like a canary. But I confess I don't know how I would make it through a jury trial without quietly using my Blackberry to check out such important websites as govols.com.

Excuse me, Your Honor? What's that? Um, er ... um ... uh ... No questions for this witness, Your Honor!

(Excuse me, folks, but I've got to go. This is the last time I am going to text- message my column in during the middle of a trial.)  

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.