Is Don Willett Being Kept From the Federal Bench Because of His Trump Tweets?

Could Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett's Twitter have anything to do with why he hasn't been appointed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals?
Could Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett's Twitter have anything to do with why he hasn't been appointed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals? Screenshot via Twitter
Certain court watchers have been excited about the possibility of Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett going federal ever since his name first appeared on President Donald Trump's list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees in the middle of the 2016 presidential election.

This is partly because Willett, a conservative justice, is well regarded on both sides of the aisle as a great legal mind, the sort that should sit on the Supreme Court one day. But there's another reason the thought of Willett being elevated to the Supreme Court or at least a federal appellate court position made some people giddy, and that's Willett's wonderful Twitter account.

But now it seems entirely possible that Willett's Twitter account — which has made him a household name in recent years — may be keeping him from a promotion.

Earlier this year, Willett made the Supreme Court shortlist and was interviewed at the White House, but ultimately was passed over. Trump instead chose Neil Gorsuch to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.

But here is where things get a little strange. Despite being a finalist for the Supreme Court, and even though there are two vacancies on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Willett has yet to be been nominated for either of those gigs.

And this isn't because the Trump administration is failing to nominate judges to the federal bench. He even has looked toward his Supreme Court candidates list to make those appointments. Of the 11 judges on the list, seven were sitting on circuit courts, and the remaining five, including Willett, were state judges. In other words, they were still judges that could be promoted.

Since Gorsuch was chosen, three of those state judges have been nominated to positions on federal appeals courts, the only exceptions being Tom Lee of Utah and Willett.

Lee's case makes sense since the circuit in the area —  the Tenth — has a full bench. Willett's really doesn't, since there are two seats vacant on the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans but includes all of Texas. Even some conservatives have noticed this apparent oversight.

The reason may be something as prosaic as backyard politics. Traditionally, the White House tends to give state politicians — senators, representatives and the governor — a lot of deference in choosing who will fill judicial vacancies tied to their state, and that may be a problem for Willett. While Senator Ted Cruz, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Energy Secretary Rick Perry are known to be Willett supporters, Willett is not the preferred choice of either Senator John Cornyn or Governor Greg Abbott, according to the Washington Post.

However, there may be another, more personal reason that Willett has yet to be selected, and like so many things with the Trump administration, it may all come back to Twitter.

Willett is a profound tweeter. His missives are often funny, pointed, moving or a combination of the three. He has also been hailed for how he handles Twitter since he manages never to overstep the lines of judicial ethics but still uses the social media platform to engage with the public.

But that doesn't mean that Willett hasn't used Twitter to make his own opinions on certain things (e.g., Trump) known:

Now there could be very good reasons Willett has not been nominated to the federal bench. Maybe Cruz and Cornyn can't agree on a choice. Maybe Willett has decided it's the Supreme Court or nothing for him. Maybe his appointment to the Fifth got lost in the mail.

Or maybe a president who is already infamous for taking jokes about himself personally has not forgotten the hilarious tweets Willett wrote about him, or that Willett obviously wasn't a big Trump supporter during the 2016 election, and has opted to keep Willett in his place specifically because it.

It sounds strange, but stranger things have happened.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray