Willett leaves Texas Supreme Court for federal bench

5:32 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 Local
Surrounded by his family, Don Willett, right, joins the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday after taking the oath of office from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Changing his title from justice to judge, Don Willett took the oath of office Tuesday, leaving the Texas Supreme Court for a lifetime appointment to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

His vacancy lasted only minutes, ending when Gov. Greg Abbott swore in the man he had chosen to replace Willett — Jimmy Blacklock, Abbott’s general counsel.

“Today is simply a day to say thank you,” Willett told an invitation-only crowd in the Texas Supreme Court’s downtown Austin courtroom after he was sworn in using the Sam Houston Bible, said to have been owned by the former Republic of Texas president, as it was held by Willett’s wife, Tiffany.

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“It has been the richest honor of my professional life to serve on the Supreme Court of Texas,” Willett said. “This is a magnificent institution.”

President Donald Trump nominated Willett to the 5th Circuit Court in September, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a 50-47 party-line vote last month.

Willett, a Republican who joined Texas’ highest civil court in 2005 after serving as the chief legal adviser to then-Attorney General Abbott, is best known for an active Twitter account that saw him named “Tweeter Laureate of Texas” by the state House. His 111,000 followers receive humorous takes on politics, his love for Chick-fil-A and rants against judicial activism, as well as frequent updates on his three children, known as the “wee Willetts,” who stood next to him for his oath of office.

Jim Ho, a former solicitor general in the Texas attorney general’s office, also will serve on the 5th Circuit Court and will be sworn in this week in his hometown of Dallas by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, according to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who also spoke at Tuesday’s ceremony.

The 5th Circuit Court is based in New Orleans and hears appeals from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Blacklock will fill the remainder of Willett’s six-year term, which will expire at the end of 2018. He has no opponent in the March Republican primary and will face state District Judge Steven Kirkland, a Democrat from Houston, in the November general election.

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Abbott praised Willett and Blacklock, saying he learned to trust their judgment as they worked side by side over the years, and called his selection of Willett’s replacement one of the most important decisions he would make as governor.

“When I appointed Jimmy Blacklock to this court, I wasn’t guessing, I wasn’t hoping, I wasn’t praying — I was knowing what type of justice he would be,” Abbott said. “He’s a person who cares about God and country and Constitution, and he will work faithfully to ensure that those principles and ideals are upheld on the Texas Supreme Court.”

Blacklock asked the other justices on the state Supreme Court for patience as he learned the ropes. “And I ask for your help. I ask that you and we all allow ourselves to be the instruments of God, as we do our best together to fulfill and uphold the oaths that we have taken,” he said.

Tuesday’s ceremony included several personal touches.

The invocation was provided by the Rev. Coby Shorter III, who officiated at the Willetts’ wedding, and the pledges to the U.S. and Texas flags were led by the wee Willetts — Jacob, Shane-David and Genevieve — and Blacklock’s three children, Hazel, Ellie and Lucy.

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