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Fifth Circuit nominee and current Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett faced repeated questioning on his statements about sexual harassment and women’s rights at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Nov. 15.
The statements appeared in a memo he wrote as an adviser to then-Governor George W. Bush, concerning a draft 1998 proclamation to honor the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women.
President Donald Trump nominated Willett to the vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Sept. 28. Willett also appeared on the short list for U.S. Supreme Court nominees Trump released during the presidential campaign.
Willett’s questioning comes as Congress is considering how to address charges of sexual harassment occurring in Congress.
He was also criticized for a tweet that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said was denigrating to a transgender teenager.
The Republican-controlled Senate can confirm Willett without any support from Democrats.
Willett wrote that he resisted the proclamation’s “talk of glass ceilings,” and he dismissed concerns about gender pay equity, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, citing a 2000 story published by the Austin American-Statesman.
Feinstein asked Willett whether he would disavow these statements.
Willett responded that he was acutely aware that women face harassment and discrimination, pointing to his mother as an example.
“I was raised by the most remarkable woman you can fathom,” a “widowed truck stop waitress” who “endured every imaginable workplace indignity,” Willett said.
Feinstein again asked him to disavow the statements, and a long pause ensued before Willett asked her to repeat her question.
Willett responded that he was trying to make the proclamations consistent with the governor’s office’s guidelines, which said proclamations shouldn’t take sides on political issues.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared frustrated with what he described as Willett’s refusal to answer Feinstein’s questions.
Durbin offered Willett “one more chance” to give a “yes or no” answer to Feinstein’s question.
Willett responded that he was trying to ensure that the proclamation didn’t take sides on policy prescriptions, while still trying to reward the accomplishments of talented women.
“Excuse me,” but those who are victims of sexual harassment “are asking all of us to take sides,” Durbin said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) came to Willett’s aid.
It was “quite reasonable” for a policy staffer to point out ideological statements in a proclamation while respecting the contributions of working professional women, Cruz said.
The questioning by Democrats “didn’t present fairly what you said or present it in” its full context, Cruz said.
He was also criticized for a tweet, that said “Go away, A-Rod” in response to a news story about a California law allowing a female transgender teen to join a women’s softball team.
Willett said he was attempting to make a joke about professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez’s suspension.
Franken said he didn’t “entirely” believe Willett.
“I believe it was intended to be hurtful” and to “deride a young woman,” Franken said.
Willett said he valued all people and didn’t intend to denigrate anyone.
Fifth Circuit nominee and former Texas Solicitor James Ho also faced questioning from the committee Nov. 15.
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