A darling of #AppellateTwitter, Don Willett is a Texas Supreme Court justice whose wit earned 104,000 followers on the social media website before President Donald Trump nominated him to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
But the Senate Judiciary Committee took a bit of shine off the Lone Star State’s officially designated “Tweeter Laureate” on Wednesday, when senators tore into him for some tweets and even told Willett it would be a good idea to just stop tweeting altogether.
“I actually naively thought I could answer all of today’s questions in 140 characters or less,” Willett told the committee, a nod to the fact that his 26,000 tweets would come up at the confirmation hearing.
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Willett stopped tweeting when Trump nominated him for the spot in September, and since then the character limit for some on Twitter has increased to 280.
One of the contentious tweets was about bacon.
Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy brought up Willett’s tweet the day after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. “I could support recognizing a constitutional right to marry bacon,” the judge wrote, adding a picture of some sizzling strips.
Willett, who was on Trump’s list of 20 potential Supreme Court picks, responded with a defense he repeated often during the hearing: It was for the sake of comedy.
“It was my attempt to inject a bit of levity,” he told Leahy. “The country was filled with rancor and polarization, it was a divisive time in the nation.”
Leahy responded, “And you think that cut back the divisiveness with a comment like that?”
Former comedian Al Franken brought up another Willett tweet from 2014, where the judge added, “Go away, A-Rod” as he shared a Fox News story about a transgender girl who was allowed to play on a girls’ softball team.
“Do you think it demonstrates good judgment for a man in his late 40s, a sitting [state] Supreme Court justice, to publicly demean and humiliate a 17-year-old girl on Twitter?” the Minnesota Democrat asked.
Willett said it was an attempt at humor that fell flat, and explained he wrote it just after Yankees star Alex Rodriguez dropped a lawsuit against Major League Baseball. It was “an A-Rod tweet, and not a transgender tweet,” he said.
“Now, I don’t get the joke. Can you explain the joke?” asked Franken, who once made a living writing jokes for “Saturday Night Live.” Willett reiterated that it was a bad joke.
“I don’t entirely believe you. I think this was meant to be hurtful. It was meant to deride a young woman,” Franken said. “I don’t know how else anyone with any kind of intelligence can interpret this other than it was a tweet of derision and you can’t explain what the joke was.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas asked Willett if he planned to keep expressing himself on Twitter if confirmed as a federal appeals court judge.
“Did my wife plant that question?” Willett joked. “I have been, up to this point, the most avid and prolific social media judge in America, which I admit is sort of like being the tallest munchkin in Oz. I think people find it astonishing a fuddy-duddy judge can step out from behind the bench and come across as halfway engaging and demystifying the judiciary.”
But Willett repeated he didn’t know if he would and he hasn’t thought a lot about it.
“But if I do, certainly the frequency and content would change,” Willett said. “I think I would focus my energies more on something like [what former Supreme Court] Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor has commendably done since leaving the high court and focus on improving Americans’ civic education.”
Sen. John Kennedy brought that up later.
“Don’t you think the wiser course would be to just not do it?” the Louisiana Republican said. “I really think you ought to listen to your wife.”
Civil rights groups oppose Willett’s nomination, stating that his record indicates he would be against workers’ rights, environmental laws, abortion rights and LGBT rights.
Democrats can’t stop Willett’s nomination without the help of some Republicans, and that looks unlikely.