- Chuck Lindell American-Statesman Staff
Facing an impending vacancy on the Texas Supreme Court, Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t look far to find a replacement for Justice Don Willett, a rising conservative star who was tapped by President Donald Trump for a federal appeals court seat.
Abbott announced Monday that he will appoint Jimmy Blacklock, general counsel in the governor’s office, immediately after the U.S. Senate approves Willett’s nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — something Texas’ two Republican senators said can be expected next month, the governor said.
Abbott said he wanted a known quantity when making his first appointment to fill a vacancy on the state’s highest civil court.
“I wanted to make sure that when I appoint someone to the Supreme Court, I will not be taking a risk hoping this person would turn out the right way,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that the person I appointed was going to make decisions that I know how they are going to decide.”
Monday’s announcement was unusual because Willett is still sitting on the Supreme Court, but it served as a warning to potential Republican candidates while the filing season for the 2018 GOP primary is in full swing.
If the U.S. Senate approves Willett’s nomination in a timely fashion, Blacklock would enter the primary and general elections as an incumbent, and Abbott said Monday that he will endorse Blacklock and campaign for him next year.
Blacklock — a graduate of the University of Texas who received his law degree from Yale University in 2005 — stood behind Abbott as he made the announcement at the Republican Party of Texas headquarters in downtown Austin, but the future appointee did not speak.
Blacklock would fill the remainder of Willett’s six-year term, which will expire at the end of 2018. His appointment would not need approval from the Texas Senate because the Legislature is not in session.
Blacklock has worked with Abbott for about a decade, also serving as deputy attorney general for legal counsel and a member of the solicitor general’s division when Abbott was attorney general, and he was instrumental in the state’s legal fight over the Affordable Care Act and in support of state abortion regulations, Abbott said.
That long relationship was key to Blacklock’s appointment, Abbott said.
“He will be a conservative vote on the court who can help influence the court’s decisions through his legal skills as well as through his insightful understanding of the law,” Abbott said. “While I cannot ensure that Jimmy Blacklock will live up to the Twitter skills of Justice Willett, I believe he will match or (exceed) the legal abilities that Justice Willett has demonstrated.”
While Willett made a national name with an active presence on Twitter — and was named the “Tweeter Laureate of Texas” by the state House — Blacklock does not have a Twitter account and still uses a flip phone, Abbott’s office said.
Conservative groups, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texas Right to Life, praised Abbott’s choice.
But Manny Garcia, deputy executive director for the Texas Democratic Party, criticized Abbott for tapping a crony for an important court position and said Blacklock will offer more of the same — “no checks, no balances, no accountability for the rich and powerful.”