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Don Willett defends controversial tweets as jokes at confirmation hearing before U.S. Senate

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a nominee of President Donald Trump to a federal court, defended past tweets about transgender people and same-sex marriage as jokes at a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Texas nominees to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals James C. Ho (left) and Don R. Willett are sworn in during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2017.  

A Texas Supreme Court Justice's popular Twitter account, and its future, drew sharp questions from U.S. senators Wednesday as two of President Donald Trump's Texas nominees for federal court openings faced their confirmation hearings.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and Dallas appellate attorney Jim Ho, both nominees to the powerful, conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, defended their past statements and legal work in a joint hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee

During more than two hours of questioning, senators directed the vast majority of their attention to Willett, a longtime judge and social media phenomenon who has drawn both praise and criticism for his prolific Twitter account. Senators took issue with the "Tweeter Laureate" both for his outsized presence on the social media platform and for a pair of particularly controversial tweets related to LGBT issues. 

One 2014 tweet quoted a Fox News article about a transgender female high school student who joined her school’s softball team.

Willett insisted that he had not meant to demean the student, though the article he quoted referred to her as “male.”

“I don’t entirely believe you,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, shot back.

Willett also drew criticism for a 2015 tweet that critics have argued trivializes the issue of same-sex marriage:

The justice insisted he had meant only to inject some “levity” into a country polarized by recent U.S. Supreme Court arguments on the right to same-sex marriage. Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBTQ issues, has come out against Willett, citing his track record as a judge in Texas, including decisions related to same-sex marriage.

Willett told the committee several times that if he resumes tweeting after being confirmed to the bench, his focus would be on civic education. “It’d be above the fray,” he said.

“Don’t you think the wiser course would be to just not do it?” U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, asked him.

“You and my wife have a mindmeld on this,” Willett joked in response.

Willett also faced backlash for a 1998 memo he wrote as a staffer in the office of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. In that document, he advised Bush to revise a proclamation he planned to issue in honor of the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women because Willett “resisted the proclamation’s talk of glass ceilings, pay equity (an allegation that some studies debunk)... and the need generally for better working conditions for women (read: more government).”

“I am the first woman on this committee… It’s been a struggle for equality,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said. “Some comments you made in 1998 concern me.”

Willett insisted that he had merely been advising his superiors in the governor’s office not to take sides on political issues in a document intended to be ceremonial. But several Democratic senators questioned whether Willett had shown appropriate concern for women’s issues.

“Victims of sexual harassment are asking us all to take sides,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said.

Ho, sitting to Willett’s right before the panel of senators, dodged much of the committee’s scrutiny. The little attention he received largely related to his contributions to the infamous 2002 “Bybee memo,” a product of then-President George W. Bush's administration that authorized the use of torture against certain detainees. Ho wrote a memo which is cited in the Bybee memo, but that was not made available to the committee due to attorney-client privilege, Ho said.

Democratic senators took issue with the omission, calling it one of many flaws in the confirmation process led by a Republican-dominated Congress.

“Mr. Chairman, there's a point at which this process becomes a joke of just ramming people through,” said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. “This is really just embarrassing.”

Both Ho and Willett received the American Bar Association's highest ranking of "well qualified" and are well-regarded in the legal sphere, at the state level and nationally.

Both Texans in the U.S. Senate, Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, serve on the judiciary committee and expressed deep support for both nominees. Cornyn said Wednesday that Willett and Ho are "two stars in the Texas legal firmament already."  Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Wednesday that both men are “brilliant legal minds who will honor the Constitution.”

President Donald Trump nominated Willett and Ho in late September after a protracted selection process reportedly delayed by Republican infighting. Their positions on the court require a vote from the full U.S. Senate, which is unlikely to come before December. The nominees must first win approval from the judiciary committee, whose members have a week to submit additional written questions. 

So far, two of Trump's judicial nominees for openings in Texas — U.S. Attorneys Erin Angela Nealy Cox and John F. Bash — have been confirmed. Several other Texas nominees, including two for U.S. attorney positions and five for district judgeships, await confirmation. Among them is First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, who has drawn widespread criticism for a 2015 assertion that transgender children are part of "Satan's plan." Mateer's name has not been withdrawn from consideration, though in the two months since his nomination, he has yet to fill out the Senate committee's standard questionnaire for judicial nominees.

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