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Duke law school graduate, a 'Tweeter Laureate,' is on Trump's list for Supreme Court pick

In this Nov. 18, 2016, file photo, then-Texas Supreme Court Judge Don Willett participates in a discussion during the Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention in Washington.
In this Nov. 18, 2016, file photo, then-Texas Supreme Court Judge Don Willett participates in a discussion during the Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention in Washington. AP

A Duke University law school graduate who has been criticized for his comments on women's rights and LGBTQ issues is on President Donald Trump’s list of 25 potential nominees to be the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Don Willett, 51, spent nearly 13 years on the Texas Supreme Court and now serves as a judge in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. His reputation reaches beyond the court chambers, as he shares thoughts and dad jokes with his 109,000 Twitter followers.

Willett's conservative views, and his willingness to speak freely on Twitter about polarizing issues, led to him being dubbed the "Tweeter Laureate."

He told the New York Times in 2012 that he was “universally regarded” as the most conservative member of the Texas Supreme Court – "which is a label that I accept with, frankly, gladness and gusto."

Here’s more about Willett, who could replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement this week.

Duke ties

Willett earned a law degree and a master’s in political science from Duke in 1992. He returned to Durham to earn a master’s in law in 2016 from Duke.

After growing up in Texas and attending Baylor University, he said he was ready for a change of scenery.

“I’d never lived more than two hours away from home. I’d never eaten a bagel until I came to law school,” Willett told The Chronicle, the student newspaper at Duke, in 2016. “I could have gone to a range of schools, but I really thrived at Duke. We had a tight-knit class with a lot of camaraderie.

“Duke is simply so beautiful. My drive to campus was like a Lexus commercial, with leaves rustling as I curved around this beautiful canopy of trees.”

Controversial comments

Last year, during a confirmation hearing to join the Court of Appeals, Willett faced questions from a panel of senators about tweets and a memo he wrote as a staffer in the office of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The memo advised Bush to revise a proclamation he had written for the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women.

“I resist the proclamation’s talk of glass ceilings, pay equity (an allegation that some studies debunk), the need to place kids in the care of rented strangers, sexual discrimination/harassment, and the need generally for better working conditions for women (read: more government),” Willett wrote.

The memo also criticized the women’s group for advocating for affirmative action and abortion rights, among other things.

Willett defended the memo by citing his mother’s struggles as a working mom who raised her children on a waitress’ salary. He argued that he understood the “indignity” some women face in the workplace.

He also said he had wanted to shape the proclamation to “cheer the accomplishments and the achievements of talented women in the workplace but without adopting or taking sides on a host of issues.”

The confirmation panel also questioned Willett about his stance on LGBTQ rights. A 2014 tweet from Willett quoted a Fox News article about a transgender high school student who had been allowed to join the girls’ softball team. Willett wrote, “Go away, A-Rod.”

Willett said he was referring to Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees baseball player who was suspended for using steroids.

“It was an A-Rod tweet, not a transgender tweet,” Willett said.

The panel accused Willett of trivializing same-sex marriage in a 2015 tweet. Willett tweeted a picture of a pan of sizzling bacon, under which he wrote, “I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a statement opposing Willett’s confirmation to the federal court.

Willett has said that he does not let his personal views affect his judicial rulings.

“I know judging, I know policymaking and I know the difference,” he told The Chronicle. “The paramount quality people should want in a judge is fidelity to the rule of law.”

Ideology

During his time on the Texas Supreme Court, Willett wrote more than two dozen concurring opinions, most going further than the majority opinion about upholding Constitutional rights.

In what is widely regarded as Willett’s most popular concurrence, he wrote that the right to “occupational freedom” allowed Ashish Patel, who worked as an eyebrow threader, to perform the work without earning a state license.

“It was about far more than whether Mr. Patel could pluck unwanted hair with a strand of thread,” Willett wrote. “This was a case fundamentally about the American dream, and the right to pursue happiness without curtsying to the government.”

Early life

Willett grew up in Talty, Texas, about 30 miles east of Dallas. The town was home to 32 people when he was a child, Willett told The Chronicle.

He was adopted by parents who didn’t graduate high school. After his father died when he was 6, his mother, Doris, raised him and his older sister. Willett held his swearing-in ceremony for the Supreme Court of Texas in 2005 on his mother’s 75th birthday, to honor her and the obstacles she overcame.

Willett became the first member of his family to graduate college, earning degrees in economics, finance, and public administration from Baylor University.

An avid Christian, Willett spent much of his youth in church. He has said those ideals have guided his world views.

Cameron Crazy

Willett told The Chronicle that perhaps his favorite part of his time at Duke was cheering on the Blue Devils in basketball.

“My time there was actually the mountaintop,” he said. “We went to the finals every year I was there, and won two back-to-back titles. It was the era of Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and it was great to watch players whose jerseys now hang from the Cameron rafters.”

When Baylor, a Christian school, played Duke for a spot in the NCAA Final Four in 2010, Willett’s faith trumped his allegiance to the Blue Devils. Willett claimed he’d never cheered against Duke in his life, until that point.

“Look, I may have more degrees from Duke than from Baylor,” he said in an interview with Baylor’s magazine, “but I’d rather forfeit my diplomas than my salvation.”

Tweeter Laureate

Willett’s Twitter avatar is a cartoon of himself, complete with judge’s robes, a cowboy hat and a gavel, wrangling the Twitter bird icon.

“Extravagantly blessed husband & co-founder of 3 wee Willetts. Former drummer and rodeo bull rider. Fluent in legalese,” reads his Twitter biography.

The “wee Willetts” are his young children, about whom he tweets regularly.

Willett also doesn't hesitate to throw shade at Trump on Twitter.

"We'll rebuild the Death Star," Willett tweeted on April 8, 2016. "It'll be amazing, believe me. And the rebels will pay for it. —Darth Trump"

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