In Don Willett, Trump taps his Twitter opposite for the federal bench




Good morning Austin:

On May , 2016,  Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett was at a book-signing for Gov. Greg Abbott’s book, Broken but Unbowed, when news broke that he was on candidate Donald Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees were he to be elected president.

I wrote at First Reading  the next day:

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 ahasty retreat, promising only to “circle back” later, which he did, that evening, with a brief statement, and better yet, an appropriately clever tweet.

Yesterday, 16 months later, President Trump nominated two Texans –  Willett and Jim Ho, a Dallas attorney and former Texas solicitor general – for seats on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

That thing about Twitter Laureate of Texas is indeed official.

And so, in his mastery of Twitter, he does, I suppose, have something in common with Trump.

But, as I wrote back then:

Willett is no shrinking violet as a jurist, (see Eric Benson, Don Willett’s Quite Revolution in the Texas Observer) 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

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.

Well, things have changed a bit since then. Trump’s advantage in numbers of Twitter followers is vastly larger than it once was – being the most powerful man in the world will do that – and Trump has now tweeted more often than Willett.

But the difference in tone remains undiminished.

In fact, about as acerbic as Willett ever gets were his tweets about Trump, back before he was on his short list, and even they are sweet, or at least semi-sweet.




Ultimately, with malice toward none, with charity for all, nicely describes Willett’s body of tweets.

There is no bully in his Twitter pulpit.

He has managed to maintain a voice that is consistently kind, sometimes clever, often corny, but always inclusive. You never feel he is tweeting at you. He is tweeting with you or for you, and I doubt anyone, even those who may not embrace, who may even abhor, his judicial philosophy, find themselves put off by his tweets,

In this, I think, he has little company and few peers.

In June, in a First Reading, Twitter makes imbeciles of us all: On Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump and the backlash against Dan Patrick’s Bible verse, I wrote:

Twitter – from the root “twit,”  a silly or foolish person – doesn’t care if its 140 characters reveal that you possess the wit of Oscar Wilde, or lay bare the sum total of your knowledge.

The only metric that matters to Twitter is impressions, engagements, retweets. Like everything else in social media, virtue is popularity, popularity is virtue, it is the only metric that matters and it destroys everything else in its path.

But here is a sampling of recent Willett tweets.


And then, yesterday …

Two days earlier, Cruz offered his congratulations to another state supreme court justice, albeit a state supreme court justice twice removed – Alabama’s Roy Moore – on the occasion of his winning the Republican  primary for the U.S. Senate.

From the AP:

Moore has twice been elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and twice removed from those duties by a judicial discipline panel. In 2003, the panel ousted him when he disobeyed a federal judge’s order to remove a 5,200 pound (2358.7 kilogram) granite Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building. Moore was re-elected in 2012, but the panel permanently suspended him in 2016 after he urged state probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. Moore disputed that accusation.

Moore is temperamentally quite different from Willett.

From Michael Scherer at the Washington Post:

The central argument of Moore’s campaign is that removing the sovereignty of a Christian God from the functions of government is an act of apostasy, an affront to the biblical savior as well as the Constitution. Among the prices he says this country has paid for denying God’s supremacy: the high murder rate in Chicago, crime on the streets of Washington, child abuse, rape and sodomy. It is a crisis he hopes to address next year from the floor of the Senate.

“We have forgotten the source of our rights,” Moore preached during that church appearance, quoting from memory passages from several books of the Bible, along with the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1892. “We put ourselves above God. And in so doing, we forgot the basic source of our morality.”

Moore has always been controversial, and proudly so. As a judge, he denied custody of three teenagers to their mother, who was in a lesbian relationship, writing that her private behavior was “an inherent evil against which children must be protected.”

In his current campaign, he has called for the impeachment of judges, including possibly Supreme Court justices, who issue rulings for same-sex marriage and sodomy.

He also acts nothing like a professional political candidate. During the final days of a brutal campaign, which has featured withering daily television and direct-mail assaults on his character, he invited a reporter to spend hours alone with him traveling through the state. Unstaffed by campaign aides and tethered to the outside world only by a flip-phone, Moore offered a seat in his family’s pew for Sunday church services, welcomed a tag-along when he visited with his 90-year-old mother, gave a tour of his home and property in rural Gallant, Ala., and then offered to speak on the record for a two-hour drive, with a quick stop for lunch with his wife, Kayla, at a roadside Cracker Barrel, where they both ordered the Sunday Homestyle Chicken.

The last 50 years, Moore argued, have witnessed the tragic removal of God from public life, from schools, from government, something that was never intended under the Constitution’s establishment clause. “There is no such thing as evolution,” he said at one point as he waited for his lunch. Species might adapt to their environment, he continued, but that has nothing to do with the origins of life described in the Bible. “That we came from a snake?” he asked rhetorically. “No, I don’t believe that.”

Moore’s on-the-record candor arises from an earnest desire to make sure that his unconventional ideas about the Constitution and God, which he has recorded in three separate books, are accurately portrayed for a national audience. “One thing I do not want you to do, because it’s not right, is to say that I believe in biblical punishments,” he said during the drive, which included periodic rain storms that blotted out the rolling forest and farmland. “I’ve been accused of saying I want to kill homosexuals because the Bible says. And I don’t.”

But Moore is not denying that, if he is elected, he will come to Washington gunning for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

From the Washington Post:

Nowhere, he notes, does the document permit the Senate to require 60 senators to bring a vote — a convention that has on occasion tied the hands of the party in the majority. He says he plans to help end the practice if he wins election, although he won’t say how. “I got a plan,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to tell you.”

That attitude could foreshadow a new level of disruption in the U.S. Senate, where individual members still have significant powers to upend proceedings and slow down legislation. Many of his supporters are counting on it.

“Watch if he doesn’t do exactly what he says he will do,” says Dean Young, a longtime Moore friend and adviser, who helped coax him into the Senate race. “They can kick him off every committee. They can blackball him. It won’t matter if it’s one man against 99 in the Senate. We all know Judge Moore will be that one man.”

Not that I’m questioning the purity of Sen. Cruz’s motives in embracing Roy Moore, but I think it’s fair to say that the day Moore joins the Senate, Cruz will no longer be the member most loathed by his colleagues.

Don Willett’s pinned tweet.


Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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