Senators Confirm Texas Judge Known for Tweets to Fifth Circuit

WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed a Texas Supreme Court judge deemed the state’s first “tweeter laureate” to a spot on the Fifth Circuit.

Known in certain corners of the internet for his active Twitter account, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett cleared the Senate on a 50-47 vote less than a week after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination. As with most of President Donald Trump’s circuit court nominees, Willett received no votes from Democrats.

Willett has held a seat on the Texas Supreme Court since 2005 and previously worked as deputy attorney general for legal counsel in the state attorney general’s office. Willett served as special assistant to former President George W. Bush, having followed Bush to Washington after working for him in the Texas governor’s office from 1996 to 2000.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Willett to his seat on the state’s high court in 2005 and Willett won re-election in 2012 with more than 78 percent of the vote. The Twitter account he maintained while on the bench led the Texas legislature to name him the state’s first “tweeter laureate” in 2015.

A member of the conservative Federalist Society, Willett was on Trump’s short list of nominees to replace the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and was included on an updated list of potential Supreme Court picks the White House released in November.

Many of the questions surrounding Willett’s nomination regarded controversial statements he made while working in public life. This included a memo he wrote while in Bush’s policy office recommending changes to a proclamation honoring the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women that removed references to “glass ceilings.”

At his nomination hearing last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed Willett on whether he believed the gender pay gap was “an allegation that some studies debunk” as he wrote in the memo.

Willett responded by saying he wanted to make the changes because the proclamation as originally written endorsed specific policy goals, which he felt was not the purpose of such a statement.

Willett also faced questions about his Twitter account, specifically about his response to a 2014 Fox News story about a transgender student being allowed to play on the female softball team at a California high school.

He wrote “go away, A-Rod” in response to the article, which he explained was a “ham-handed” joke about former Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, whose year-long suspension from baseball took effect around the same time.

Liberals also probed his time on the bench, questioning an opinion Willett joined this year finding that the spouses of gay and lesbian public employees are not necessarily entitled to the same government-funded benefits that are provided to opposite-sex couples.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found a fundamental right to marriage, came down during the appeal of Houston’s directive that city employees in same-sex marriages could receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples. The Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

As Willett explained to Feinstein in an answer to questions she submitted in writing after his nomination hearing, the ruling was not on the merits of the case challenging the directive, but was based entirely on procedure.

“My court in Pidgeon did not decide the merits, which had never been fully briefed or litigated,” Willett wrote, referring to the case. “We did not rule for or against anyone on the benefits issue. We had no record on which to do so. We did not enjoin the city’s benefits policy. We left it in effect and remanded, as both parties requested, so they could litigate their constitutional arguments in light of Obergefell, which was issued while the case was on appeal.”

Feinstein also pressed Willett in written questions about his decision to join a dissent in a case in which the majority found Texas could not charge a 13-year-old girl with prostitution after she allegedly solicited an undercover officer.

Willett told Feinstein the facts of the case were “heart-rending” and that he simply read the law differently than the majority.

He also said he believed the juvenile justice system would benefit the girl, whose caseworker described her as a “violent and chronic runaway.”

“I thought [former Texas Supreme Court] Justice [Dale] Wainwright’s dissent was the better reading of the law – and also more protective of victimized children, who would receive counseling, rehabilitation, and treatment, rather than be released back into a toxic street environment,” Willett wrote.

Willett is the second federal appeals court judge the Senate has approved this week and lawmakers are expected to confirm one more before the week is over.

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