Justice Don Willett was appointed to the Supreme Court of Texas in 2005 and has won two statewide elections since then. Apart from three years in private practice with Haynes and Boone following a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, he has been engaged in the public sector throughout his career: as director of research and special projects for then-Gov. George W. Bush; as domestic policy and special projects adviser on the Bush-Cheney 2000 Presidential Campaign and Transition Team; as special assistant to President Bush in the White House; as deputy assistant attorney general for legal policy at the U.S. Department of Justice; and as deputy Texas attorney general.
“I’ve worn a lot of legal hats, but this one fits best,” says Willett of being an appellate judge.
Having gained a reputation for elegantly written judicial opinions, Willett has garnered considerable notice of late for his engaging presence on Twitter (@JusticeWillett). He proved equally eloquent in an online interview with Duke Law Magazine, an excerpt of which follows.
Duke Law Magazine: What did you learn from your mother, who you have called “heroic”?
Don Willett: I grew up in a doublewide trailer in a tiny Texas farm town of 32 people (so small our town square had only three sides), and was raised by a widowed mother who never finished high school and who worked multiple jobs as a waitress to support my sister and me. I never knew any lawyers, much less imagined one day serving as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
The night before I joined the Court in 2005, I found a website that estimates the number of miles that people walk daily in different occupations. I did the quick math and learned that in my mom’s 55 years of waitressing, she had walked roughly from the earth to the moon — a quarter million miles, the equivalent of circling the border of Texas 75 times. And every step she took brought a grateful son one step closer to the indescribable honor of serving her and 26 million other Texans on the Supreme Court.
Now 83, my mom embodies virtues like grit, tenacity, and fortitude, and her sacrifices instilled in me a devotion to public service, in pouring myself out for others as she did for me. And I hope to instill that ethic of service and civic-spiritedness in my three young children.
DLM: At what point did you decide to become a lawyer?
DW: The idea of being a lawyer was doubtless born when my dad died intestate at age 40. Dying without a will makes life very complicated, and I saw first-hand the law’s power to impact lives. My grief-stricken mom had to make some monumental decisions, decisions that degree by degree set the trajectory of our family. At age 6, I didn’t understand what lawyers did, but it was obvious that they were uniquely positioned to exert a profound impact on society. My triple major at Baylor was economics, finance, and public administration. I have pretty varied intellectual interests, and I’m acutely aware of the potency of educational attainment and how knowledge can boost not only your life chances, but those of your family’s future generations. Bottom line: I just really enjoy learning and broadening my intellectual horizons.
That’s a big reason why I chose the dual-degree program at Duke (JD/MA in political science), to expand my worldview and become better-read and better-rounded. And it’s why I’ve returned to Duke for my master of judicial studies, to scratch an insatiable itch for deeper and more varied knowledge. Next: maybe a PhD or SJD, but my wife insists I’ll probably have to wait until our young kiddos are out of college.
DLM: Tell me about your time at Duke Law.
DW: I really thrived at Duke. We had a very tight-knit class with tremendous camaraderie, and the MA part of my studies gave me nice balance — the chance to be on a different part of campus, around different people, and studying different things. Plus, Duke is such a gorgeous place. And it was the mountaintop basketball-wise: three straight title games and back-to-back championships!
Hands-down the most fateful influence was Professor Tom Metzloff. He taught my Civil Procedure class, and I was fortunate to work with him the summer after my 1L year. We researched and wrote some articles on alternative dispute resolution (a niche I later incorporated into my law-firm practice), and I helped him with other projects throughout my 2L and 3L years. His daughter Emily, then in elementary school, was my star witness in my trial advocacy class. Professor Metzloff took a keen interest in me and in my development, and we’ve stayed in close touch ever since.
DLM: What did you like best about your time in the executive branch?
DW: In terms of fun, it was surreal to enjoy performances from the president’s box at the Kennedy Center, watch Fourth of July fireworks at the White House, and cheer t-ball games on the South Lawn as Bob Costas did the play-by-play and cabinet secretaries coached the teams.
In terms of work, I was privileged to work on high-stakes matters, both at the White House and at the Justice Department. At the White House, I handled religious-liberty issues and wrote the first two executive orders of the new administration. At DOJ, I was deputy in the Office of Legal Policy, the epicenter for the president’s judicial selection and confirmation efforts. So I interviewed, vetted, and helped confirm federal judges, and also supervised numerous cutting-edge civil and criminal justice initiatives — for example, writing an executive order to expedite U.S. citizenship for active-duty immigrant service members and helping craft the landmark PROTECT Act of 2003 to protect children from abduction and exploitation.
September 11, 2001, was obviously the low point. It’s simply impossible to overstate the horror of that day.
DLM: What do you enjoy most about your current service as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court?
DW: I revere the law. It’s a majestic thing, and when the people of Texas confer the title “justice” on someone, they place in human hands that profound majesty, something that impacts the life of every single Texan.
The judiciary is the most elegant branch of government, and I believe that judging — safeguarding our liberties and deciding disputes peaceably, with wisdom and evenhandedness — is a noble enterprise. I agree with President Sam Houston that “an able, honest, and enlightened judiciary should be the first object of every people.”
DLM: How do you describe your judicial philosophy?
DW: The paramount quality people should want in a judge is surpassing fidelity to the rule of law. The business of judging is about fulfilling a sober and sworn legal duty, not gratifying a personal political agenda.
I have a decidedly modest view of my role and the judiciary’s place in our constitutional architecture. The judiciary is emphatically a legal institution, not a political or cultural one. That is, judges must act judicially by adjudicating, not politically by legislating. We must be impartial referees, not ideological combatants or philosophical crusaders seeking to indulge a personal agenda, either liberal or conservative.
DLM: Why have you decided to return to Duke Law to pursue your master of judicial studies?
DW: I want to be an exemplary jurist. I think I’m metabolically hard-wired for the cloistered life of appellate judging, for what Justice Holmes called “the secret joy of isolated thought.” Being a judge is rewarding beyond measure, and I’d love to remain on the Court for a generation.
Put simply, I want to leave a legacy of rich judicial scholarship — a goal that requires me to bring as much incisiveness and intellectual discipline to my work as I can muster.
I’m confident the master of judicial studies program, including the privilege of marinating in the company of bright classmates who have different views and approaches, will elevate my own judicial performance. If there are ways I can improve the quality of my work, understand my role better, and perform my duties better, I want to embrace them. But even if I approach cases in largely the same way, I want that approach to be the product of rigorous examination, not rote repetition.
DLM: You have gained considerable notice for your tweeting and have about 6,000 followers. What’s the approach of @JusticeWillett?
DW: For someone who has to run for re-election in a state of 26 million people, it’s political malpractice not to engage voters via social media. As with anything, though, judges must be judicious and self-censor before hitting “tweet.”
One cardinal rule: I don’t throw partisan sharp elbows or discuss issues that could appear before the Court. I never give my two cents on hot-button legal controversies or pending cases. I just strive to keep things witty and engaging — sometimes even informative.