Trump picks active tweeter, Hobby Lobby case lawyer for appeals court

Texas Supreme Court Judge Don Willett participates in a discussion during the Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Story highlights

  • Trump picked four conservative judges for the court, including lawyer who argued Hobby Lobby case
  • 5th Circuit has a majority of GOP-nominated judges
  • Don Willett is known for his active Twitter account

Washington (CNN)The White House will announce four nominees for the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, a conservative-leaning court that has ruled against key Obama-era initiatives, including on immigration, two sources tell CNN.

The four are: Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett; Kyle Duncan, a private lawyer and former general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Kurt D. Engelhardt, currently the chief judge of the Eastern District of Louisiana; and former Texas Solicitor General James C. Ho.
The court, which handles cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, has 17 active judges, a majority of whom were nominated by Republican presidents. The appeals court was a thorn in the side of the Obama administration at times, ruling against the former President, for example on his controversial executive actions on immigration. The court was also reversed by the Supreme Court when the justices threw out a Texas abortion law in 2016.
    Leonard Leo, who took a leave from the conservative Federalist Society to help advise the President on a list of potential judges to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, praised the latest slate of judges saying they are "held in very high regard by scholars and practicing lawyers across the country."
    "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," he said in a statement.
    "The Fifth Circuit was an especially central court during the late Obama administration, as conservative state attorneys general filed lawsuits seeking to restrict President Obama's administrative actions in Texas district courts," said Raffi Melkonian, an attorney who frequently argues before the court. "It remains to be seen whether under President Trump, the focus shifts away to other appellate courts, as more liberal states file their own lawsuits in friendlier territory."
    Of the nominees, Willett was on the short list for Scalia's seat and is perhaps best known outside of Washington for his active Twitter feed, that was at times critical of the President during the campaign.
    "Those of us who have known Don Willett appreciate that he is an avid Twitter user who often tweets in a light-hearted spirit of jest and sarcasm, sometimes poking fun just as much at himself as others," Leo said.
    This week, Willett commented on a video of a baseball player bringing an order of nachos to a fan. "Under tortilla reform, you don't pay if it's nacho fault," Willett quipped.
    Duncan was the lead lawyer arguing on behalf of Becket for Hobby Lobby stores in a 2014 Supreme Court case challenging Obamacare's contraceptive mandate. In a 5-4 opinion, the court ruled that the for-profit company with sincerely held religious beliefs did not have to provide a full range of contraceptives pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.
    Since the blocked nomination of Obama's nominee for Scalia's seat, the Senate has been bitterly divided on the issue of nominees, and the new seats are expected to infuriate some liberals.
    "Texas' Republican senators prevented President Obama from filling these vacancies for four and five years, as Texas and therefore the 5th Circuit have become the epicenter of conservative efforts to attack reproductive justice, block protections for immigrants and transgender students, roll back voting rights and more," said Christopher Kang, former deputy counsel to Obama.