Saying we live in an era of “staggering civic illiteracy,” Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett told a conservative think tank Thursday that schools must provide a far richer education on the rights and duties of U.S. citizens.
Speeches by members of a relatively obscure court typically don’t get much media attention, but Willett’s profile has risen significantly since his name appeared on President-elect Donald Trump’s list of 21 potential nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump recently said he plans to make his pick “within about two weeks” of his Jan. 20 inauguration, and The New York Times has reported that the list has been cut to a half-dozen names for additional scrutiny.
Willett, a Republican on the Texas high court since 2005, said he has had no contact or conversations with Trump or his transition team. “I’m just trying to keep my head down” and focus on the job, he told the American-Statesman, adding that he feels blessed to be part of the nine-member Texas court.
“Growing up a doublewide-trailer kid raised by a widowed waitress mom who never finished high school, I never imagined serving on any court, much less the U.S. Supreme Court,” Willett said.
In his lunchtime speech to the Texas Public Policy Foundation gathering in Austin, Willett didn’t discuss the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing instead on what he called an acute crisis of American ignorance in the workings of the Constitution and government.
Saying people who don’t understand government don’t participate in it, Willett cited an August survey showing that only 26 percent of adults could name the three branches of government, while 31 percent couldn’t name a single branch.
The U.S. system of government requires fierce champions, not feeble spectators, yet voter turnout in Texas is the worst in the nation, he said.
“When voters don’t actually vote, then politicians have every incentive to ignore them,” Willett said. “Our government is only going to be as great, as responsive as we demand it to be.”
Schools will have to do better, he said. “We have got to get back into the education game,” he said. “Civics is no less a core competency than other subject.”
Willett’s name appeared on the first list of prospective nominees that Trump released in May — a surprising turn, Willett said at the time, because the Trump campaign hadn’t contacted him beforehand.
Ten names were added in September, and Trump promised that his first nominee would come from the combined list that includes nine federal appellate judges and nine state Supreme Court judges.
The exposure dramatically raised the profile of Willett, who had been better known for his active and humorous Twitter feed. Newspaper features followed, and his Twitter followers jumped to 74,000. The Wall Street Journal recently featured “A Week in the Life of Justice Don Willett,” a first-person account from “the tweetingest judge in America.”
The last state Supreme Court justice appointed to the federal high court, however, was William Brennan Jr. in 1956 — 10 years before Willett was born.