Trump taps ‘Tweeter Laureate’ Don Willett for 5th Circuit appeals court

Sept 28, 2017
Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett was the guest speaker for the Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Orientation for the Texas Legislature on Jan. 12. Willett has been nominated for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

President Donald Trump on Thursday announced that among his nominees for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a jurist who shares the president’s affinity for Twitter and who was dubbed by the Texas House the state’s “Tweeter Laureate.”

But Willett did not take to social media with the news of his nomination until Thursday evening, leaving his 98,000 followers to wonder what humorous quip or historical reference he might have stashed away for such an occasion. Instead, they had to feast on some of his latest offerings, like Willett’s admission that he misplaced his glasses only to find them on the top of his head, and a photo of the family dog, Buddy — his “pawralegal.”

He broke his silence around 8 p.m., saying he had “no words” before expressing: “I am honored & humbled by @POTUS’s nomination to the 5th Circuit.”

“He’s got the knack,” Dallas attorney David Coale said. “He knows just the right tone.”

Earlier this year, Willett made Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court seat that went to Neil Gorsuch.

Dallas appellate attorney Jim Ho, who succeeded Ted Cruz as Texas solicitor general, has been tapped by Trump to join Willett in the 5th Circuit, along with two nominees with Louisiana ties, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt and attorney Kyle Duncan. Their additions would give the circuit 17 active judges and eight senior judges to handle appeals from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Cruz released a statement calling Ho and Willett “brilliant lawyers and principled conservatives.”

Sen. John Cornyn said the two will “faithfully interpret the law, not rewrite it.” Gov. Greg Abbott, who the American-Statesman reported in May had taken an active role in recruiting people for the positions, “can attest to their brilliance as lawyers and their unwavering commitment to the Rule of Law.”

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If approved by the Senate, Willett and Ho would join a court that is already considered one of the nation’s most conservative appellate courts. The 5th Circuit has made major rulings in recent years on the regulation of the oil and gas industry, abortion and voting rights.

Ho, an attorney with the Dallas firm Gibson Dunn and Crutcher, clerked with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He also worked for Cornyn. According to Cruz’s office, he assisted Cruz in his 2016 presidential campaign by fighting challenges related to the Canadian-born Cruz’s eligibility to run for president.

Willett has worked for some of the state’s most powerful political figures. From 2003 to 2005, he was deputy attorney general for legal counsel under then-Attorney General Abbott. Before then, he served as deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department and was special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

Willett, 51, graduated from Baylor University before going to Duke University for law school. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation says Willett was a senior fellow there in the mid-1990s.

Willett, whose father died when he was 6, released a touching tribute to his mother on Wednesday on her 86th birthday. She worked at a truck stop as a waitress for 55 years, said Willett, who estimated she walked 250,000 miles on the job. Or, he tweeted, 85 times around the perimeter of Texas.

Willett won’t have to move to New Orleans for the job, so his tweets about Austin barbecue aren’t going anywhere.

But Willett’s online aim is not exclusively to dispense dad jokes or to share stories about his three children that he “co-founded” with his wife, according to his peers.

“He believes there’s an education role,” said Coale, the Dallas attorney, who heard Willett express his philosophy on a panel they shared about social media. “The courts tend to speak only to lawyers, and lawyers speak only to courts. Poor observers are trying to figure out what the heck happened. He’s trying to be a teacher.”

But, Coale offered, “sometimes he’s in the mood to just be funny.”

Dallas attorney John Browning, who wrote a law review article with Willett on judicial use of social media, called his co-author “one of the finest legal writers not just on the Texas Supreme Court, but on a national front.”