The Senate voted today to confirm Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a move cheered by conservative activists and legal scholars.
Willett’s nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a 11-9 party line vote, and today’s final confirmation vote followed a similar partisan breakdown, at 50-47.
Democrats lack the numbers to block any of President Donald Trump’s judges since former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the rules in 2013 to allow judicial nominees to be approved by a simple majority vote, rather than the 60 votes that were required previously.
That didn’t stop them from attempting to turn Willett’s confirmation hearings into a circus, with Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) engaging in especially theatrical fauxtrage about tweets Willett had posted. Among the @JusticeWillett tweets that had them clutching their pearls was this one joking about wanting to marry bacon:
I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon. pic.twitter.com/HKPW6tE4H6
— Judge Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) April 30, 2015
Franken even went so far as to question Willett about whether or not this was a joke. Franken would soon have an entirely different reason to not be laughing less than 24 hours later, when the first accusations of him sexually harassing women began to emerge.
Cloture vote on @JusticeWillett was 50-48, moves on to confirmation. There is no reason for that level of hostility to this nomination of a well-qualified candidate except pure partisan spite. Democrats should be ashamed of themselves.
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) December 12, 2017
Willett came from a humble background, with his father passing away when he was only six, leaving him to be raised by his mother, who waited tables in a tiny Texas town with only 32 residents. He would go on to be the first in his family to graduate from high school, then on to college, earning a triple major from Baylor University in economics, finance, and public administration. Willett continued his education at Duke University, earning a Masters degree in political science and a law degree, then later returning to Duke’s law school to earn an LLM.
HAPPY 87th B’DAY to my sainted, superhero mom.
Widowed young w/o a h.s. diploma, mom waited tables for 55 years—walking a quarter-million miles & serving ≈ 2 million customers.
— Judge Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) November 22, 2017
Willett’s legal career included a clerkship on the Fifth Circuit, the very court on which he will now sit, and several years working for a large law firm. He then joined then-Gov. George W. Bush’s administration in Texas and followed Bush to Washington to join his administration when he became president, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was one of his colleagues. Willett and Cruz both returned to Texas and worked at the Texas Attorney General’s Office under then-Attorney General (and now Texas Governor) Greg Abbott.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Willett to the Texas Supreme Court in 2005, and he was reelected to that position in 2006 and again in 2012.
On the bench, Willett distinguished himself with sharply written prose, featuring pop culture references and a strong dedication to constitutional principles and properly limiting the use of government power. He was among the names on the list of conservative judges that Trump promised during his presidential campaign to use to select Supreme Court nominees. One of the names on that list, Neil Gorsuch, was indeed Trump’s first SCOTUS nominee, and now Trump has drawn from the list to again to appoint Willett to the Fifth Circuit, an appellate court just one step below the Supreme Court.
I am honored & humbled by @POTUS's nomination to the 5th Circuit.
— Judge Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) September 29, 2017
Willett and his wife Tiffany live in Austin, Texas and have three adorable children, the affectionately nicknamed “Wee Willetts” who are a frequent feature of his Twitter feed.
Fellow Texan Cruz delivered remarks from the Senate floor earlier today praising Willett, along with his fellow Fifth Circuit nominee former Texas Solicitor General Jim Ho.
With respect to Don Willett and Jim Ho, I have known the both of them for decades. Both are close friends. Both are brilliant lawyers. Both have spent decades earning a reputation as principled constitutionalists who will remain faithful to the law and will not impose their own policy preferences from the bench. Beyond that, both Don and Jim are testaments to the American dream. They’ve both taken different paths to the Fifth Circuit, but both of their stories encapsulate what is so incredible about this great nation…
Both Jim and Don, I am convinced, will make excellent judges on the Fifth Circuit. They are brilliant. They are principled. They are humble men of deep character. They love their families. They are wonderful fathers. And I am confident not only will they faithfully follow the law on the Court of Appeals, but Mr. President, I predict that Jim Ho and Don Willett will become judicial superstars. They will become jurists to which other federal judges across the country look. Their opinions will be cited heavily. They will be followed. In other Courts of Appeals – their careful, meticulous analysis, their fidelity to law, will be held up as exemplars for judges across the country to follow.
That is a great accomplishment for the federal judiciary. A great accomplishment for the United States Senate. And a great week for the state of Texas.
Congratulations Justice…wait, make that Judge Willett!
— Judge Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) September 17, 2017
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[Note: this article has been updated to correct a typo regarding Franken and Leahy’s political affiliation.]