Alumni | General Education

A Week in the Life of Justice Don Willett

A member of the Texas Supreme Court has become ‘the tweetingest judge in America.’
WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  January 5, 2017 by Don Willett

Justice never sleeps if you’re on the Texas Supreme Court. It’s 2:30 a.m. Lightning strikes; thunder booms. It’s pouring, and I’m poring…over legal briefs, prepping for court in a few hours. I’m exhausted—but exhilarated. Serving 27 million Texans spread across 254 counties and two time zones isn’t a job for those who require a lot of sleep.


After oral arguments, the justices gather in conference to discuss cases. The lawyers have debated; now it’s our turn. We’re an all-Republican court, but we revel in give-and-take, and our varied work backgrounds sharpen our discussions. (My bull-riding experience comes in surprisingly handy.)


I’m metabolically hard-wired for cloistered Supreme Court life, relishing what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called “the secret joy of isolated thought.” I write a lot, and rewrite even more. When writing, I split my time between my chambers and my satellite office: my neighborhood Chick-fil-A. It offers the word-nerd trifecta: I bring Bose headphones; they provide Wi-Fi and waffle fries.

But to do my job, I must keep my job. Re-election comes every six years, which explains why I spend so much time on Twitter. If you’re an obscure judge whose name ID hovers between infinitesimal and zilch, it’s political malpractice to neglect social media.

I’m probably the tweetingest judge in America, which, admittedly, is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. Americans can debate whether the judiciary remains government’s “least dangerous branch” (Hamilton’s description). But “the branch with the costumes” (my daughter’s description) is certainly the least understood.

Americans’ constitutional illiteracy is staggering: A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 31% of respondents couldn’t name a single branch of government, and 10% of college graduates think that Judith Sheindlin (aka Judge Judy) sits on the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a survey last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. So I tweet, in part, to boost people’s civic IQ and to demystify and humanize the judiciary. My cardinal rule: no acidic rants on hot-button issues. Just waggish, above-the-fray musings (and memes) on the passing scene.


My family recently dedicated a scholarship at Widener University Law School in Harrisburg, Pa., honoring my late brother-in-law, U.S. Army Capt. Shane Mahaffee, a Widener alumnus, gone now 10 years. The law was Shane’s wheelhouse. He relished being in the fray—in the courtroom, on the golf course, and on the battlefield.

Shane was mortally wounded by an IED while patrolling outside Baghdad in 2006. My 10-year-old son Shane-David, named after his brave uncle, joined me at the podium: “Thank you for honoring my uncle Shane. I never met him, but he inspires me, and I pray he inspires each of you.”


My own inspiration, my mother, just turned 86. Widowed young without a high-school diploma, Mom waited tables at the local truck stop. I once calculated that in her 55 years of waitressing, she walked roughly from Earth to the moon—nearly a quarter-million miles, or 85 trips around the perimeter of Texas. Growing up in a trailer in Talty, Texas (population 32—so small that our ZIP Code began with a decimal), I learned that the law is about real people walloped by real problems in the real world.


On our hallway table sit six glass jars, two for each of our three children. Exactly 936 pennies are divided between the two jars, each penny representing a week of life from birth until age 18. The left-side jars contain the pennies (and weeks) yet to come; the right-side jars contain those already gone. Every Sunday, my wife moves three pennies from left to right—each clink a deafening reminder to savor every irreplaceable moment.

In parenting as in judging, the days are long, but the years are short.


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