Good morning Austin. Good morning Justice Willett.
It was just another Happy Wednesday.
So, the official Tweeter Laureate of the State of Texas apparently arrived at Gov. Greg Abbott’s book signing at the Texas Public Policy Foundation yesterday in a good frame of mind and well sated, if perhaps in a bit of a post-BBQ glow/stupor when he learned, through Twitter no doubt, that he was on what the Trump
campaign described as “the much-anticipated list of people he would consider as potential replacements for Justice Scalia at the United States Supreme Court.”
Much anticipated, perhaps, but, for Willett, it seems, wholly unexpected.
During his briefs remarks, Gov. Abbott, probably at that point unaware of what was unfolding, gave Willett a shout-out.
When he finished speaking and began signing his book, Broken But Unbowed, reporters gathered around Willett, who, sweetly flustered, couldn’t even muster 140 characters in spoken response before beating a
hasty retreat, promising only to “circle back” later, which he did, that evening, with a brief statement, and better yet, an appropriately clever tweet.
Here was his statement:
I respect all, and personally know several, of the judges listed. Being named alongside them for any purpose is a rich honor. They are exceptional jurists, and importantly, over half have served or are serving in the state judiciary, where most American justice is dispensed.
I’m not sure that Trump’s mention of Willett in particular owes to anything especially strategic, apart from the fact that Willett is a favorite of conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, who Trump looked to for advice on a list that would please and reassure them and theirs. I don’t know if Trump was aware of the George Will column last summer favorably comparing Willett to Chief Justice John Roberts, and recommending that whoever the next Republican president is, “To his first (Supreme Court) nominee … this president should simply say, `Welcome to Washington, Justice Willett’.”
Will, of course, has said that all decent Republicans should do everything in their power to ruin Trump’s chances of being elected president, even as the party’s nominee, and Trump has described Will as a “major loser.”
Nobody watches him. Very few people listen to him. It’s over for him, and I never want his support.
Before his name appeared on Trump’s Supreme Court short-list, Texas justice Don Willett relentlessly mocked the billionaire businessman on Twitter.
Well, joke, relentlessly mocked?
How bad could it be?
And, one would assume, that Trump, who, if elected president, would owe his election to Twitter, would have to admire the Twitter skills of the tweetingest judge in America.
Trump has about 20 times as many Twitter followers, but only half again as many tweets at Willett.
Willett likes a lot. Trump likes little.
Willett follows nearly 1000 others (including Mr. Never Trump, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse), and a suspicious number of Texas journalists. Trump follows almost no one without Trump in their name or title, plus wrestling mogul Vince McMahon, and the hosts of Morning Joe.
Trump often uses Twitter as a bludgeon, but Willett is more inclined to the Twitter cuddle than the cudgel.
From Chuck Lindell’s story in today’s Statesman:
Willett’s prolific use of Twitter sets him apart from many other judges who avoid social media or are uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts in such a public forum. More than 37,000 Twitter followers get frequent posts about his three children, known as the “wee Willetts,” and his love of Chick-fil-A, as well as encouragement for would-be lawyers taking the bar exam and humorous forays into political news.
Willett has served as an adviser to George W. Bush while he was Texas governor and then president, and Willett was the chief legal adviser to Abbott when he was attorney general.
Frequently seen wearing his trademark bow tie, Willett had no judicial experience when then-Gov. Rick Perry named him to fill a Texas Supreme Court vacancy in 2005, but he quickly became known as one of the most conservative members of the all-Republican court.
Willett was the author of last week’s opinion that upheld the Texas public school finance system as constitutional if outdated and archaic — an emphatic victory for state Republican leaders who argued that education problems couldn’t be fixed simply by directing more money to schools.
He also dissented from a 2015 decision that declined to overturn a Travis County divorce for two women who had married in Massachusetts, and last month he wrote an opinion chastising a Travis County judge for issuing an order allowing two women to marry in Austin four months before the state’s ban on gay marriage was struck down.
In other words, Willett is no shrinking violet as a jurist, but his tweets, which appear to be an extension of his personality, are remarkable because they seem more interested in defusing tensions than provoking them.
In that context, his Trump barbs are pretty pointed, but Trump, more than anyone, knows how this goes.
From Jesse Wegman at the New York Times in 2014.
His tweets are a mix of family outings (“Daddy-Daughter breakfast dates are THE BEST!”), oblique political commentary (“When it comes to legislating from the bench — I literally can’t even”), savvy cultural references and good-natured sports talk. His humor is sometimes corny and often funny. A tweet on Sept. 8 included a photo of two federal judges enduring oral argument, one half-asleep and the other apparently picking his nose, with the caption: “This is why some judges (not me) resist cameras in the courtroom.”
Of course, no one who uses Twitter needs to be reminded of the perils of a misguided tweet. In a phone interview, Justice Willett acknowledged the risks of high-speed, low-character-count dispatches. While on Twitter and Facebook, where he also maintains a public profile, he said he avoids partisan commentary and any legal issues that might come before him. “My political consultant said I’m the only client of his that he does not worry about,” he said.
The main reason for his online presence, he said, is a practical one: staying connected to voters. Texas state judges are elected, and State Supreme Court justices serve six-year terms. Justice Willett, who was first appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005, has won two elections since and will be on the ballot again in 2018. He calls it “political malpractice” not to make use of social media.
From Shosana Weissman at the Weekly Standard
Taking on the judicial norm requires not only courage, but intellectual vigor, which Willett has in spades. He flourishes both within the confines of 140 characters, but he will also soon earn his fourth degree (an LLM in Judicial Studies from Duke Law School), and next year will be editor in chief of the revered scholarly journal for judges, Judicature.
Naturally, I was curious if Willett has received backlash for either his tweeting or judicial philosophy. “Twitter-wise, the response is overwhelmingly positive,” adding, “It’s uncommon for a Supreme Court justice to step out from behind the bench, and folks are astonished that fuddy-duddy judges can be authentic and engaging.” On the bench, he’s doing just fine, too. “Not every opinion I write is 9-0, but I’ve been elected statewide twice.” The latter point is an understatement, as Willett garnered the largest vote total in Texas history in his most recent election.
The Twitterverse is elated to see a judge who understands Twitter, while proponents of judicial engagement—like George Will—are elated to see a judge who heeds the Constitution’s limits on government power. Will recently hinted—and not subtly—that he wants Willett to fill the next vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. George Leef made the same point in a Forbes column. I asked Willett if he would prefer SCOTUS over SCOTX. “I don’t do demotions,” Willett cracked, “Plus, my wife and I call our prior stint in D.C. ‘the greatest thing we’ll never do again.’”
SCOTUS aside, Willett is widely seen as the leading candidate to replace Texas’s recently indicted attorney general. Willett politely declined to address the subject, calling it “highly unfitting” to discuss pending legal matters.
Willett is even influencing the 2016 race. Last night’s CNN debate moderator Hugh Hewitt tweeted that his Constitution Day reference in the debate was “courtesy of @JusticeWillett.” When nominations to the Supreme Court were mentioned in the debate, Texas governor Greg Abbott tweeted, “I’d recommend to whichever candidate wins to appoint @JusticeWillett to #SCOTUS. A proven conservative who won’t rewrite law. #txlege.”
Willett’s personal hero is his mother, who was “widowed at a young age and without a high school diploma.” He timed his formal Court swearing-in to fall on his mom’s 75th birthday.
“After dad died, mom hunkered down and waited tables at the local truck stop to support my sister and me,” Willett recounts, “In 55 years of waitressing, mom walked roughly from the earth to the moon—about 75 times around the perimeter of Texas. And every step she took brought a grateful son one step closer to the unfathomable privilege I have of serving 27 million Texans,” he said.
Embodying his mom’s ethic, Willett now protects the Lone Star State from unconstitutional abuses of government power. And case by case—and tweet by tweet—he brings the Constitution and the Supreme Court of Texas closer to Texans.