Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
You already knew about Donald Trump’s reverence for Twitter, but it’s still surprising that a Texas judge known mainly for his funny tweets would land on the Republican presidential candidate’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees.
It’s like seeing a pair of Chuck Taylors sticking out from under the judicial robes.
Willett is more than just another pretty tweet. Those tweets get the headlines, but Trump hopes Willett’s credentials as a conservative jurist — like those of others on the list — will attract reluctant Republicans to his side.
Trump’s list has two audiences, but only one real target. People who don’t know these judges — especially (but not exclusively) those who are always in the market for stories about kooky Trump stunts — focused on Willett’s tweets.
That circus audience includes some of the news media, which played stories about Willett’s 140-character gags alongside news of the list itself. Check out some of the headlines:
- Huffington Post: One Of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Picks Has Spent A Year Trolling Him On Twitter
- Daily Mail: Trump unveils potential Supreme Court picks including conservative firebrand judge with hilarious Twitter feed
- Time: Meet the Judge on Donald Trump’s Supreme Court List Who Is Great at Twitter
- Houston Chronicle: Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett's Twitter account is prolific, full of Trump burns
- Washington Post: Why this judge has such a lively Twitter feed
You get the idea.
The other audience, and the real target of his ploy, is made up of the kind of circus-hating conservative insiders who know all about judges like Willett. Trump is trying to convince conservatives — especially those who are very wary of his judgment and his “barking carnival act” — that his picks for the Supreme Court would be better than, say, Hillary Clinton’s.
That worry over a potential Democratic president’s appointments separates some undecided conservatives from those who have joined the “#NeverTrump” tribe.
Many of those people know Willett is not on the list because of his social media prowess.
“I think that the addition of Justice Willett is brilliant,” Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters this week. “I support him. I think he would be an outstanding jurist on the United States Supreme Court. I also think it is a tremendously good idea for all presidential candidates to release a list.”
Willett’s on the list because conservatives like him. That’s why his name floats up when the conversation turns to possible successors to the state’s besieged attorney general. He was an assistant Texas attorney general: a former Abbott employee, a former Ted Cruz colleague. He’s got a résumé that might convince an irresolute conservative that Trump’s got game, at least when it comes to judges.
Willett worked for George W. Bush, in the governor’s office and in the presidential campaign and the White House. He was a fellow at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, where he wrote a white paper urging a merger of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Former Gov. Rick Perry appointed Willett to the court in 2005. Last year, Perry touted him as an example of Perry’s own thoughts about judges, saying Willett would make a strong addition to the nation’s high court and capping it with this quote: “I don’t do squishy.”
The justice’s latest gift to conservatives in Texas was the 100-page Supreme Court ruling, penned by Willett, that said the awful, terrible, convoluted, foul manner in which the state pays for public education is also constitutional.
His tweets are a sometimes-hilarious distraction. But the main show is that he’s a bona fide conservative judge. That’s why Trump put him on a list of people designed to calm the night tremors suffered by Republican insiders.
The justice’s tweets appear not to have hurt his chances. Given Trump’s own social media habits, they might have brought him to the attention of this political circus’ ringmaster.
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here.