Potential Texas Trump Picks Could Shake Things Up On and Off the Supreme Court

Ted Cruz and Don Willett don’t fit the typical profile that the past few presidents have turned to for a Supreme Court nomination, but that might make a difference in a Trump administration.

By Rhonda FanningDecember 13, 2016 11:01 am

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died while on vacation in Safter, out in west Texas, it shook the court as few events have since his rise to the bench in 1986. His vacancy has left the nation’s highest court ideologically divided, and politicians at odds over a replacement.

The Republican-led Senate refused to schedule so much as a hearing for President Barack Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, leaving the seat open for President-elect Donald Trump to fill. And he hasn’t been silent on that score. As he works his way through filling a long list of officials to join his transition team, his pick could come at any time – given that there’s already a short list.

Joseph Ura, a professor at Texas A&M University, says the list itself is unprecedented. Presidential nominees and sitting presidents rarely release candidate names for potential Supreme Court picks, preferring to play their hand close to their chest. But Ura says Trump had unique political needs as an entry-level Republican politician.

“He needed to reassure Republicans and conservative voters that he was on their side on their most important issues, which often run through the supreme court,” Ura says. “By releasing a list of potential nominees during the campaign, and making some pretty strong promises to only select people from that list, he was able to reassure that important block of voters that he was in fact on their team.”

One name stands out on the list: Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. Ura says he’s a prominent conservative judge within the state – and nationally.

“He’s well known nationally for some of his opinions, particularly those dealing with economic liberty here in Texas,” Ura says. “He is also more widely known for his unorthodox presence on Twitter where he cultivates a following [by] telling dad jokes and making Star Wars puns and showing cute pictures of his kids.”

Although Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is not on Trump’s list of potential nominees, Ura says his politics are definitely in the spirit of the list.

“Trump has a history of taking his commitments as sort of general commitments, rather than specific commitments,” he says. “Choosing a conservative jurist, who could have easily been on the list had he not been running for president against him at the time, I think would satisfy the constituency who’s most concerned about the list and about Supreme Court nominations.”

Cruz and Willett aren’t known in academic circles, unlike many of the people on Trump’s list. Ura says both men don’t fit the typical profile that the past few presidents have turned to for a Supreme Court nomination, but that might make a difference in a Trump administration.

“Donald Trump has run on a platform of shaking things up, on being an outsider,” Ura says. “On one hand it’s hard to think of folks who went to elite law schools and clerked for federal judges or Supreme Court justices and hold high positions in state and federal government as outsiders. … Both [Cruz and Willett] are outspoken in their legal views. Both of them sort of have strong personalities and could be leaders both on and off the court. I think whether Donald Trump turns to either of those two people in particular, those traits will be sort of things that he looks for in his Supreme Court justices.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.