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Texas Elections 2018

Analysis: It’s an honor, but don’t quit your day job

Don Willett has a job — he's a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. And he's been picked for a job on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But until that new job comes through, he's going to try to keep the job he's got — in 2018's elections.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett (center with glasses) at the State of the Judiciary speech in the House chamber on February 23, 2011.

Texas Elections 2018

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Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett is going to run for re-election in 2018, even though he has been nominated for a federal judgeship.

That federal job won’t be his until the U.S. Senate says it’s his. Until then, the Texas job is the only one he has. Everybody's gotta eat.

President Donald Trump named Willett, a judge who tweets almost as much as Trump himself, to an open spot on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a prestigious lifetime gig that requires Senate confirmation.

Congress can be slow about this stuff.

Priscilla Owen, Willett’s predecessor at the Texas Supreme Court, is now a judge on the 5th Circuit. She was selected in May 2001 by then-president George W. Bush. She didn’t win confirmation until four years later, when a group of senators called the “Gang of 14” cut a deal to end Democratic filibuster threats against Owen and nine other Bush selections.

Four years.

Even with that long wait, Owen didn’t have to face Texas voters in the interim. She was elected to a six-year term, her second, in 2000, and served until she had been confirmed for the federal bench.

Being on the Texas court is how Willett draws his paycheck. And this wouldn’t be worth writing about, probably, if he was in the private sector. Dallas attorney James Ho was named to the same court, and he’ll get to keep being a lawyer until Congress has had its say on his nomination.

Willett’s selection catches him in what would ordinarily be preparation for a re-election bid. Appointed to the Texas Supreme Court when Owen moved up, Willett won an unexpectedly close general election in 2006, with 51.05 percent of the vote. Six years later, no Democrat challenged him.

Confirmations don’t always take as long as Owen’s. Jerry Smith of Houston, picked by Ronald Reagan in June 1987, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December of that same year. He’s still on the court — one of three federal judges assigned to Texas’ ongoing redistricting litigation.

George W. Bush named Edith Clement to her place on the 5th Circuit in September 2001, and she was confirmed in November of that year. Barack Obama named Gregg Costa, a Houston federal judge, to the 5th Circuit in May 2014. Costa was confirmed within six months. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom is the norm, barring political spats in Washington, D.C.

If it happened that quickly for Willett, he’d be on his way to New Orleans before the Dec. 11 filing deadline for Texas political candidates. Even if Congress isn’t that quick about it, Willett should know within a year whether he’s going to be a federal judge or not.

But the election calendar throws a kink into the process. Texas elects its judges in partisan races. The primaries are March 6. Candidates have to file for office between Nov. 11 and Dec. 11. People running for the Texas Supreme Court have the added requirement of gathering signatures from supporters. Willett was already gathering his signatures before he was nominated for the federal job.

Even if he didn’t run for re-election, Willett’s current term runs through the end of 2018. That ought to be enough time for a Republican Senate to deal with its part of the advise-and-consent arrangement with a Republican president.

If it’s not enough time, a re-election bid is the only way Willett could keep his job. That’s got the obvious advantage — you know, work and pay and all that — and another one: Willett won’t have to look for a new job in the shadow of a pending judicial confirmation. Who wants to hire a temp?

And in the worst case — the U.S. Senate rejects him for some reason — a successful re-election bid would leave him right where he is: In a black robe, writing opinions and tweeting from the Texas Supreme Court.

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2018 elections Don Willett Texas Supreme Court