Texan Don Willett grilled by Senate Democrats at judicial hearing


Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and James Ho, former Texas solicitor general, faced sharp questions.

President Donald Trump nominated Willett and Ho for vacancies on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, appearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his nomination hearing to be a federal appeals court judge, was assailed by Democrats who cited his tweets and other statements that they said suggested a lack of sensitivity to women’s and transgender rights.

James Ho, a Dallas lawyer and former Texas solicitor general, who is also nominated to fill another Texas vacancy on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, fared better.

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who had recommended the nominees to President Donald Trump for the lifetime appointments, lavished praise on them – Willett for raising himself up from modest beginnings and Ho for his American success story after arriving as an immigrant from Taiwan.

Senate Democrats, led by ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., however, pounced on Willett’s past writings that seemed to diminish the value of women’s concerns on pay and equality and of LGBT issues, especially his tweet that appeared to mock a transgender girl who was allowed to play on a girls’ softball team.

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It was a rough session for the usually glib Willett, who is a frequent Twitter user and was named “Tweeter Laureate” by the Texas Legislature in 2015. Asked by Cornyn and others if he would continue to tweet, he said that he hadn’t decided but, “If I do, the frequency and content would change.”

Feinstein began by repeatedly questioning Willett over a memo he’d written in 1998 objecting to a proclamation being prepared for then-Gov. George W. Bush for the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women when Willett was on the governor’s staff.

Feinstein said that she was the first woman to serve on the judiciary panel and told Willett that his comments, appearing to dismiss what he described as “hype” — women’s issues on glass ceiling, pay equity, and sexual discrimination and harassment — “concern me.”

When Willett answered by launching into a description of his widowed mother’s hard-scrabble life, Feinstein interrupted him, asking about what he’d written: “Do you still hold those beliefs?” At that, Willett asked her to repeat the question.

Finally, he said that he believed “women encounter all manner of obstacles” in life. “I was not trying to torpedo the proclamation,” he said, explaining that he wanted it reworded so as not to “take sides.”

Feinstein cited an American-Statesman story in 2000 which quoted Willett as saying in the memo, “I resist the proclamation’s talk of ‘glass ceilings,’ pay equity (an allegation that some studies debunk), the need to place kids in the care of rented strangers, sexual discrimination/harassment, and the need generally for better ‘working conditions’ for women (read: more government).” She entered the story into the committee record.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Al Franken, D-Minn., had a Willett tweet blown up – it was about a transgender girl joining the girls’ softball team with the comment, “Go away A-Rod” – and had staffers hold it up behind them during their question time.

“If you’re confirmed to the 5th Circuit you’re going to hear constitutional and civil rights cases involving LGBTQ individuals,” Leahy said. “Why would a transgender person with a case before you ever think they’d have a fair and impartial hearing?”

Willett insisted that he would not discriminate and that the reference was an attempt at humor related to New York Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez having agreed to a suspension. However, under questioning by Franken, a one-time comic on “Saturday Night Live,” Willett could not explain the joke, saying it was “a ham-handed attempt at levity.”

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Franken said that he did not believe Willett: “I think this was meant to be hurtful. It was meant to deride a young woman. I don’t know how else anyone … can interpret this. It’s a tweet of derision. You can’t explain what the joke was.”

Leahy also complained about a Willett tweet posted when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage that said, “I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon.” Willett’s response was that it was also an attempt at humor.

Ho came in for some pointed questions from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., wondering about a memo he wrote while at the Justice Department that is classified but is cited in a discredited memo from the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration supporting torture and waterboarding.

“It’s a memo subject to attorney/client privilege,” said Ho, explaining that he was not the one who had made that determination.

Willett, who was on Trump’s short list of Supreme Court candidates, and Ho are expected to be approved by the committee along partisan lines.

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