Impressions made at an early age—whether through positive or negative experiences—often shape the direction of a person’s life. Such was the case with Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett, BBA ’88, who was born to an unwed teen mother in Dallas, was adopted shortly thereafter and overcame health problems as an infant.
Two weeks after Willett’s sixth birthday, his adopted father passed away due to the culmination of a series of heart attacks.
“Neither of my parents finished high school,” Willett says. “And my father didn’t have a will, which complicated things for my family. I saw at an early age how my mom, without a high school diploma, wrestled with a slew of consequential decisions.”
It was that experience, “grasping how fateful the law is to people’s everyday lives,” that propelled him to a law career.
“I don’t remember a lightning-strike moment, but the idea of being a lawyer was born when my dad died,” Willett says. “I didn’t know any lawyers or understand what they did, but it was obvious they were uniquely positioned to exert a profound impact on society.”
In August 2005, Willett was appointed by then-governor Rick Perry to the Texas Supreme Court, filling the seat vacated when Priscilla Owen joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Willett was elected to the seat in 2006 and again in 2012, earning the then-highest vote total in Texas history. He runs again in 2018 and jokes that he is “coming soon to a ballot near you.”
Willett began his legal career after earning juris doctor and master’s degrees from Duke University. He clerked for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerre Williams before practicing law in the Austin office of Haynes and Boone LLP from 1993 to 1996, during which time he was a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
In 1996, Willett joined then-Gov. George W. Bush’s administration as director of research and special projects—the resident utility infielder, in Willett’s words. It was during that time that he met his wife Tiffany, the daughter of a Texas-native U.S. Marine father and a mother who escaped communist East Germany as a girl.
“We met over the fondue pot at a Christmas party,” Willett says. “We had instant rapport and talked the whole night.”
Don and Tiffany married shortly before the 2000 presidential election and now have three children—Jacob Noble, Shane-David Gabriel and Genevieve Elizabeth.
He worked 20-hour days on the Bush-Cheney Presidential Campaign. They both served in the White House—Don as special assistant to the president, advising President Bush on religious liberty issues, and Tiffany helping run the prestigious President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.
He later served in the Justice Department, helping the president select and confirm federal judges. “Shaping the judiciary is a legacy with a capital L,” he says.
Willett returned to Texas in 2003 as chief legal counsel to newly elected Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor. An avid student of history, he reveres the law and aspires to be an exemplary jurist.
“Texans deserve to have the utmost confidence in their judiciary, to believe, unshakably, that their judges are impartial arbiters—not ideological combatants, not philosophical warriors seeking to gratify a personal agenda, either liberal or conservative,” Willett says.
He comes from humble beginnings. After his father’s death, Willett and his older sister Donna (also adopted) moved to Talty, Texas. His mother was a truck-stop waitress along Interstate 20, and the family of three lived in a drafty doublewide trailer.
“Unbelievably small,” Willett says of Talty, “so small the town square had only three sides. We were surrounded by cotton and cattle and probably had more opossums than people. But I grew up around decent, hardworking people who struggled mightily to build a future for their families.”
His family attended First Baptist Church in Forney where Willett participated in Royal Ambassadors. He attended a few Baylor football games on Royal Ambassadors Day and learned That Good Old Baylor Line by age 11.
At Forney High School, Willett found little guidance on life beyond high school.
“I’d never heard of the PSAT; I arrived for school one day, and it was PSAT day. So, I grabbed my No. 2 pencil, and off I went,” he says. “I had no idea what the stakes were.”
Although he applied to roughly 10 colleges, Willett knew in his heart he was destined for Baylor. He views his Baylor experience as a time of rich enlightenment.
“I left Baylor with more than a diploma; I left with a direction,” he says. “I left with a purpose anchored in Baylor’s mission—Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana.”
Willett points to how Jesus summarized and simplified God’s eternal law: Love God, love your neighbor.
“It’s also the sum of the Christian education Baylor provided me,” he says. “Every day, I seek to live out those truths. In that sense, Baylor has never left me and never will. Baylor is 180 degrees opposite of Vegas: What happens at Baylor never stays at Baylor.”
Willett, who was a Baylor Chamber member, majored in economics, finance and public administration at the University.
“I left Baylor with more than a diploma; I left with a direction. I left with a purpose anchored in Baylor's mission—Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana.”
“I’m the beneficiary of abundant blessing both innumerable and immeasurable,” he says, “and my mom modeled uncommon virtues like tenacity, fortitude and sacrifice,” all of which enhanced his Baylor experience.
“In stark contrast to the world around us, Baylor suggests a different way of living,” Willett says. “It never fails to point me in the right direction.”
Equally in stark contrast to the stodgy legal world around him, Willett has become a bit of a social media phenomenon with almost 100,000 Twitter followers. He is known for his wry sense of humor and ability to humanize and demystify the judiciary.
“I take my job seriously but not myself,” Willett says. “As Charlie Chaplin put it, ‘A day without laughter is a day wasted.’”
The flashes of personality people see on Twitter are evident in his everyday life.
“There’s not a huge distinction between @JusticeWillett online versus Justice Willett offline,” he says. “With or without my robe, I try to live life with gladness, gusto and gratitude.”
That combination of attitude and aptitude explains Willett’s recent presence on President Donald J. Trump’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court. Willett was the lone Texan on the list, finishing among the final six to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Willett describes it as an “out-of-body experience” and a “profound privilege to be considered.”
In 2016, Willett received his third Duke degree—a Master of Laws in Judicial Studies, a program designed for judges. Professors in the program included Scalia and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
“It is rigorous and all-consuming,” Willett says. “We were all Type-A, hard-charging jurists who desire to be there, and it was an intellectual feast.”
While he holds degrees from Baylor and Duke, Willett is clear as to which school holds his greatest allegiance. This was evident in 2010 when the two men’s basketball programs met in the NCAA Tournament with a spot in the Final Four on the line.
“I’d never cheered against Duke in my life until that game,” Willett says. “I got mucho grief from my Duke buddies, but I said, ‘Look, I may have more degrees from Duke than from Baylor, but I’d rather forfeit my diplomas than my salvation.’”