Herman: Appeals Judge Willett to take colleagues’ ‘Twitter temperature’

12:19 p.m Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 Opinion
Judge Don Willett, formerly a Texas Supreme Court justice, hugs his family after being sworn into a lifetime appointment on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Texas Supreme courtroom Tuesday. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It was a clash of impressive forces. On one side, the powerful presidential and congressional complex and its code of expected conduct for judicial nominees.

On the other side was a judicial nominee with a Twitter habit bordering on addiction.

On Sept. 28, President Donald Trump (who, I’m told, also tweets) nominated Texas Supreme Court Justice and Texas Tweeter Laureate Don Willett for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, setting in motion the Senate confirmation process during which nominees are supposed to maintain public silence.

For Willett, this came after eight years and about 26,000 tweets, many of them entertaining. The last tweet prior to the confirmation process came the day he was nominated: “No words. I am humbled and honored by @POTUS’s nomination to the 5th Court. Thank you, Mr. President — also Senators @JohnCornyn and @tedcruz.”

And then, in a disappointing development for his more than 100,000 followers, Willett went into Twitter silence — save for a scant two cautious tweets (one a Calvin Coolidge quote in praise of the U.S. Constitution and the other a birthday wish to Willett’s mom) from the previously prolific justice — as the Senate worked toward his Dec. 13 confirmation.

But that was it from Willett, clearly balancing temptation versus confirmation. In addition to whatever other damage you might think he’s done to the country, had Trump deprived us of much-needed Twitter entertainment?

Though pretty much silent on Twitter, Willett got some unplanned attention Nov. 28 when he helped do the Heimlich maneuver on a guy who got a piece of bun stuck in his throat at a local Chick-fil-A.

On Dec. 15, two days after confirmation, @JusticeWillett re-emerged:

“HAPPY BILL OF RIGHTS DAY,” he tweeted. “The 1st 10 amendments to our Constitution were ratified 226 years ago today.”

Those, of course, include freedom of tweet, a concept endorsed by the founders and embraced by Willett.

Slowly but surely, post-confirmation, Willett tweeted anew, including about the Boston Tea Party, “U GOTTA FIGHT 4 YOUR RIGHT 2 POUR TEA,” and holidays, “Of the 8 Jewish #SCOTUS justices in U.S. history — 1 for each night of #Hanukkah — 3 serve today.”

On Dec. 19, he mustered up the courage to weigh in on a controversy: “Greatest Christmas heroes — ranked: Yukon Cornelius. John McClane.” Cornelius is a character in the 1964 TV version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” McClane is played by Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” movies.

Also in his holiday tweets: “My cherub Genevieve & her squad reciting the Christmas story from Luke at my mom’s memory-care facility.” Included was a video snippet of his daughter’s performance.

The “Wee Willetts,” as he calls his sons, 13 and 11, and daughter, 8, sat with their mom Tiffany Tuesday during their father’s oath of office ceremony Tuesday. As Willett addressed the crowded Texas Supreme Court chamber, Genevieve continued reading a book she had brought with her: “Kidnapped at the Capital.”

Willett’s re-emergence on Twitter has been cautious, leaving us to wonder if we’d ever again see the level of Twitter genius exercised by the pre-Trump-nomination Willett?

Then Thursday night happened: “The 2nd-youngest Rolling Stone just turned 74,” Willett told us in a tweet including a close-up of the well-weathered Keith Richards smoking a cigarette in a photo that could serve as a poster for why it’s important to moisturize.

“As 2018 approaches,” Willett tweeted with the photo, “we must ask ourselves: What sort of world are we leaving for Keith Richards?”

On a more serious note, he tweeted a biblical “2018 to-do list:” “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”

Shortly after he took the oath Tuesday, I asked Willett if his Twitter habits will change now that he’s a federal appeals judge.

He said he has some research to do about that. “Appellate judging is an intensely collegial enterprise,” he said. “I certainly above all want to be a respectful, collegial colleague who works well with others,” Willett said. “So I want to be very deliberate and visit personally with each of my new colleagues and would never want to do anything to siphon public confidence in the court.”

A bit later, appropriately via Twitter, Willett told me: “Certainly, if I continue, the frequency and content would certainly change, focusing heavily on civics education and constitutional literacy. We inhabit an age of staggering civic illiteracy.”

Yes, we do. We also inhabit an age in which good-natured humor seems needed.

Here’s hoping his new judicial buddies won’t feel like Willett’s whimsical tweets might make the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals look more like the 5th U.S. Circus Court of Appeals.

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