This morning, Justice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court endured the partisan gauntlet of the Senate hearing on his nomination to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The hearing only confirmed what I have known for some time: Justice Willett will serve the federal judiciary with integrity, wit, and commitment.
I clerked for Justice Willett after graduating from law school. For a year, I observed and learned from this consummate jurist. He grappled honestly with every case that came before that court. He never issued a decision based on his own predilections. His methods call to mind a comment made about Justice Cardozo long ago: “He never disguised the difficulties, as lazy judges do who win the game by sweeping all the chessmen off the table . . . he wrote his opinion with his very blood.”
Several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for their part, seemed to believe that off-hand remarks taken out of context somehow bear on how Justice Willett will act as a judge on the Fifth Circuit. Justice Willett responded that, regardless of his own political views, he is “unshakably wedded to the rule of law.” I can testify to that.
So what should we expect from a judge committed to the rule of law? For one, a judge committed to the rule of law interprets the law as written, not as the judge might write it himself.
Second, a judge devoted to the rule of law will not defer to other branches of government regarding what the law means. That may explain why Justice Willett, like Justice Gorsuch, has expressed concern over whether judges should defer to bureaucrats’ partisan interpretations of the law.
Finally, the rule of law also means that judges’ first fidelity should be to the highest law in the land–the Constitution. When legislatures try to wriggle out from the confines of the Constitution, judges committed to the rule of law hold lawmakers to the lawful limits of their power. Justice Willett has proven his commitment to the Constitution and the liberties that it enshrines throughout his tenure on the bench. In a scathing dissent, he denounced “policing for profit,” the practice of seizing innocent people’s property in the name of law enforcement, stating: “police power cannot go unpoliced.” He’s also passionately defended the rights of everyday people to earn a living without bumping through a labyrinth of unfair licensing requirements. And he’s protected these and other individual rights with an agile wit and an incisive pen.
I’ve seen Justice Willett’s integrity, goodness, and intelligence. He is a man of character, a friend to liberty, and a public servant “wedded to the rule of law.” The federal judiciary couldn’t ask for better.