The White House released President Donald Trump’s eighth slate of judicial nominees Thursday, announcing the nominations of a popular Texas Supreme Court justice and a seasoned religious liberty litigator for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The president’s picks for the 5th Circuit include Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, former Texas Solicitor General Jim Ho, and Kyle Duncan, former general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Willett in particular is popular with law students and practitioners active in social media. The justice maintains a Twitter account that traffics in law puns, pictures of his family, and relentlessly pro-America imagery, prompting the Texas State Legislature to style Willett the state’s Tweeter Laureate in 2015. Legal ethicists cite his use of the medium as the standard par excellence for social media use by judges.
A devotee of Chick-fil-A, the justice keeps a “satellite office” at a location near his Austin home, to achieve “what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the secret joy of isolated thought.'”
Twitter aside, Willett first attracted widespread attention in 2015 for a concurrence that he wrote in the case Patel v. Texas Department of Licensing, in which he urged courts to apply great scrutiny to government regulation of economic activity. The opinion was a significant contribution to the ongoing debate in conservative legal circles about the proper role of a court in a free society.
Duncan, one of the nation’s top religious liberty litigators, will likely attract significant criticism from Democrats. Before entering private practice, he led one of the nation’s top public interest law firms, representing a variety of high profile clients before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was lead counsel in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, in which a 5-4 Court concluded that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate does not apply against closely-held private corporate entities.
In private practice he represented the Gloucester County School Board in litigation concerning its refusal to allow a transgender student to use the bathroom corresponding to his gender identity. The Supreme Court initially agreed to hear the case, but dismissed it after the Trump administration withdrew Obama-era guidance advising that public schools should provide such accommodations to trans students.
Other nominees announced Thursday include Gregory Maggs for the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Ryan Holte for the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Barry Ashe for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Daniel Domenico for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, and Howard Nielson for the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.
Conservative court-watchers praised the president’s picks.
“Top to bottom, this is an extraordinary list of judicial nominees,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group. “President Trump continues to hit grand slams in an area that unites and excites Republicans.”
Leonard Leo, the president’s judicial selection guru, singled out Willett and Duncan for praise in a statement supporting the nominees.
“President Trump’s latest group of judicial nominees is strong. Texas Justice Don Willett and Louisiana attorney and professor Kyle Duncan, in particular, embody President Trump’s commitment to picking judges who have a record of excellence and a commitment to a judicial role that is impartial rather than committed to a particular personal or legal agenda.”
“They are held in very high regard by scholars and practicing lawyers across the country, and I am confident they will serve with distinction,” he added.
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