'TWEETER LAUREATE OF TEXAS' MOVES TO FEDERAL APPEALS COURT BENCH
Posted January 3, 2018 4:58 p.m. EST
AUSTIN - Don Willett pledged his first oath of office to the Texas Supreme Court 4,512 days ago. About four years later, he sent his first tweet.
Now, the conservative jurist and one of Texas' most social media savvy public officials known for tweeting about the constitution, his faith and cracking dad jokes to 111,000 followers is the newest member of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was sworn in Tuesday.
"A strong judiciary is indeed essential to a strong state and to a strong United States," Willett told a packed audience inside the Texas Supreme Court courtroom. "My title today has changed from justice to judge, but my task has not. Judging according to the rule of law is a sacred trust."
Willett was nominated to the federal court by President Donald Trump last September. Although U.S. Senate Democrats grilled him during his confirmation hearings for a tweet they said demeaned a transgender teen, the chamber confirmed his nomination on party lines in December.
His shift to the federal appeals court based in New Orleans is something of a homecoming for Willett, who clerked at the 5th Circuit after law school a quarter century ago.
"I will continue serving the Lone Star State on a new court, but always with a full heart," said Willett, who has been dubbed the unofficial "Tweeter Laureate of Texas" and has sent nearly 26,000 tweets.
Also nominated and confirmed to the 5th Circuit Court is James Ho, a Dallas appellate lawyer and former Texas solicitor general who became a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Both are respected in conservative circles and were recommended by Texas' two Republican U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
"I learned pretty quickly that being a judge was not for lazy minds or giant egos," said Cornyn, a former member of the Texas Supreme Court, during the ceremony. Judges shouldn't go "rogue," meddle in politics or legislate from the bench, he added.
"The job requires painstaking attention to detail and nuance. It's very hard work," he said.
The federal appellate court handles appeals from U.S. district courts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The 5th Circuit is one of the country's more consistently conservative courts, said Justin Levitt, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
The challenge for Willett, Levitt said, "will be interpreting laws that he had no occasion to interpret in his role as a Texas Supreme Court justice, and he will be dealing with U.S. Supreme Court rulings in a very different way."
High-profile cases from Texas that have been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years include a challenge to Texas' abortion restrictions, which the high court struck down, and a case pushing back against the Obama administration's executive action on immigration.
James Davis Blacklock, Gov. Greg Abbott's general counsel, also was sworn onto the bench Tuesday. He will finish Willett's term on the Texas Supreme Court, which ends Dec. 31. He is running for election to the post.
"He is one of these people who comes to this court, as they say, with batteries included. He comes prepared to serve from Day 1," said Abbott, who praised Blacklock as "brilliant" with masterful insight and extensive experience with appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.