This is an abbreviated tale of two judges. One was a legal and civil rights giant who opened the doors of public schools to millions of children. The other is better known as a conservative Tweeter who has neglected the needs of school kids.
It may be absurd to contrast Don Willett with the late Thurgood Marshall because the historical deck overwhelmingly is stacked in favor of Marshall, but that’s the way my mind works some times. I am prodded by the coincidence of Willett’s nomination by President Donald Trump to a federal appellate court coming only a few days before the 50th anniversary of Marshall taking his seat as the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even before his Supreme Court appointment, Marshall had made history as an NAACP attorney who convinced the high court to outlaw segregation in U.S. public schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Marshall, the grandson of a slave, later became U.S. solicitor general and made history again when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court. He took his seat on Oct. 2, 1967.
Because of economic discrimination, housing patterns and not-so-subtle racism, the fight over segregated schools still isn’t over, but the landmark court ruling that Marshall won has given millions of children of color access to public educations they otherwise would not have known.
Willett, one of Trump’s choices for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was one year old when Marshall joined the nation’s high court. More recently, Willett has been a conservative justice with an active Twitter account on an all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. Last year, he and his colleagues had the opportunity to strike an overdue blow for the school children of Texas. All they had to do was uphold a strongly worded, well-thought-out opinion by a lower-court judge that the state’s woefully underfunded school finance system was unconstitutional.
Instead, Willett and his colleagues reversed the lower court and upheld the school finance law, with Willett writing the majority opinion. Willett compounded the court’s failure by admitting that the funding system was very bad but just wasn’t bad enough to order the Legislature to do anything about it. I guess you could call that a political-judicial handwashing.
The court’s free pass gave Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick all the encouragement they needed to beat back attempts by Speaker Joe Straus and the House to improve school funding during this year’s legislative sessions. School children and local taxpayers in under-funded school districts will continue to suffer the consequences.
Although Willett tweeted several criticisms of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump included the Texas judge’s name on his first list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Now, Willett is settling for a seat on the 5th Circuit instead.
He tweeted that he was “honored and humbled” by the Tweeter-in-Chief’s decision, leaving a less-than-historic judicial record behind in Texas.