It's not easy being a Texas judge. All those laws to remember, all those criminals to put away. The stereotypes alone are nearly impossible to uphold. A Texas judge is supposed to sling no-nonsense sayings like he slings his gun at high noon, fast and furious. His courtroom should follow the hang 'em high, ask questions later way of proceeding. And, a cowboy hat is a must in courtroom attire. Watch the syndicated courtroom show Texas Justice's Larry Joe Doherty and you get the idea of what people really think of the honorable men and women that sit on Texas's judicial benches.
My father is a judge in Texas, and it was in high school when I realized what a rare breed of professional he is. A boyfriend half-jokingly asked me if my father sits on the porch with a shotgun in hand, waiting for my dates to bring me home by curfew. I suppose this guy wasn't completely irrational for fearing my father. Boys ARE supposed to be scared of Daddy, but, come on! A shotgun?! And a porch?!
Fulfilling some of the western cowboy myth of the Texas Justice, my father grew up in Del Rio, a town situated on the border between Mexico and Texas in a family where the men were either ranchers or lawyers. He spent many summers helping out his grandfather with ranch operations. But, by the time he came out of college, he was pretty set on making a career out of making law.
He attended the University of Texas Law School, and served his time on the Law Review, something every law student should do, he informs me, even if it's just to pump up the résumé. His last year of law school, he tried out politics by serving in the Texas House of Representatives. For two terms he served, but, being a lawyer was in his blood and he took up the practice in his hometown.
In 1970, destiny came knocking. His father, my grandfather, who was the presiding judge of the 63rd Judicial District, died suddenly. Members of the Texas bar approached my dad to take over his father's vacancy, and with the governor's appointment, he accepted. He remained district judge until his retirement in 2000.
As district judge, my father was often away presiding over cases in five counties and attending judicial conferences to keep up with the ever-evolving system and its laws. When he was home, there were the phone calls interrupting our dinner from folks wanting out of jury duty. Taking a simple walk down Main Street always turned into handshaking madness. Complete strangers would come up to him and thank him for helping them out of some sort of legal bind. The work was nonstop. Many a night I would find Dad asleep on the couch with a law journal spread over him like a blanket.
During a trial, the judge is part of the courtroom woodwork, his presence felt but unnoticed until he chimes in with a "sustained" or "overruled." He sits high above everyone in the courtroom and watches over the proceedings like a wise owl.
I watched Dad in his courtroom and I often wondered how he did it. How did he stay awake? How did he keep from rolling his eyes or laughing at some of the inane questioning? Did he ever want to just get up and yell, "Hey, shut up, you moron! You're implicating your client!" And, what does he think about the stereotypes of the Texas judge?
So, for annabelle, I called him to take the stand. Time to find out what a real Texas justice is all about.
Q. What is the role of a judge during a trial?
A. You can't play a baseball game without an umpire or a football game without a referee. But on the other hand, you're not there just to call the balls and strikes. You have to keep litigation moving. You have to see that the rules of conduct in the courtroom and the rules of evidence are observed. You have to keep your eyes open and strive to see that lawyers do the job that they're supposed to do in representing their clients ethically and to the best of their legal ability without stepping out of bounds.
Q. What is the most frustrating thing about being a judge?
A. The delay in getting cases to trial when something at the last minute comes up that lawyers should have foreseen was going to come up and done something about it earlier, and, in fairness to the parties, having to postpone the case. Many times, of course, you can't postpone in fairness to the parties, you have to go ahead.
Q. The most rewarding part?
A. It's always rewarding when you get a case either ready for trial or during trial and the parties be exactly where they stand and they reach a settlement. I like that. And of course we handle the adoption of young children. That's always a ceremony I enjoyed presiding over, where there was an uncontested type proceeding and you knew you were putting a child in a good home.
Q. How do you deal with your own prejudices or opinions when hearing a case? For instance, it's clear the defendant is guilty of the crime but he still deserves a fair trial.
A. You have to keep a straight face. You cannot look incredulously at an answer to a question; you have to just preside. Your role, and we're talking about a jury trial, is not to pass on the weight of the evidence. It's not much problem there, quite frankly, to let things develop. In a case where the judge is the trier of fact and there's no jury in the box, it's probably a little more difficult. You let the parties have their say and then rule. Many times, just right at the very first, you have a pretty good idea of what the outcome might be, but you have to keep an open mind because something might come up a little later or right at the end that might cause you to make a 180 degree turn on how you think an issue ought to be decided.
Q. What if you don't like the attorney or he's inept, didn't do his homework?
A. We call a little recess, go back in chambers, and try to get that worked out.
Q. What qualities does a person need to be a judge?
A. Well, you have to be patient. You cannot be temperamental. It helps to be a lawyer that has had experience in litigation and has been in a courtroom presided over by judges that do cause you problems and those particulars and you remember you don't want to be like that. Consequently you mind your p's and q's.
Q. Without giving too many details, were you ever asked for favors or attempted to be bribed?
A. No there was no bribe, no "you do this for me and I'll do this for you." Judges are always asked for favors whether it's trying to get a speeding ticket fixed by some old friend that happened to be racing through your district on a trip, or a favor of performing a marriage for a family. But that's not really the type of favor you're talking about.
Q. No, I'm talking scandal.
A. No, never approached.
Q. Have you ever heard of any scandal like that?
A. It happens.
Q. Is it always discovered?
A. Yes. Any time you hear of something like that, of a judge being before a judicial conduct commission because of such an event, it's usually one of a chain of similar events.
Q. Did you ever get a kick out of the power you wield in the courtroom? I mean, "All rise." is said in your honor. That's got to be a boost to the ego every time you hear that.
A. Well, no. My courtroom we never really stood that much for ceremony except on the first day of a jury panel reporting, something like that. As for power, that's a responsibility. It's not something bestowed on you by virtue of your office alone.
Q. How do avoid falling asleep during some of the long tedious cases?
A. That is very hard to do sometimes. It is amazing how some questioning of witnesses can go on and on and on. But you, just like a juror, have to stay awake and be alert and you have to concentrate on what's being said and remember it. It's a mental strain to a large extent to follow all that's going on.
Q. What's been the biggest change in law that you've noticed since you started?
A. Well, the practice of law to me is not the art that it once was. So much of our practice and proceedings have been codified either in rules of court laid down by the Supreme Court of the state or by the legislature. There was an art in instructing juries, but it's codified now, too. It calls into a practice, a pattern. And, to me, it made the trial of cases a lot easier, but it took a lot of the fun out. There's nothing to me more fun that watching good lawyers artfully present and argue with the court on how their case should be submitted to attempt to get a verdict.
Q. As a judge in the state of Texas, maybe you could shed some light on why Texas leads the nation in executions. What is it about Texas and all these executions?
A. We have a lot of very horrible crimes committed in Texas. That's true everywhere, but our legislature said that under certain circumstances the penalty must be death so found by a jury. There's nothing wrong with it.
Q. Do you think there's a Wild West mentality in Texas juries?
A. No. Our juries in death penalty cases are probably more prosecution prone once they've found someone to have committed a capital crime than other parts of the country. I think you'll find that true in just about most states in Middle America and the South.
Q. You had only one capital punishment trial, the one that put serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells on death row. That trial was documented in a 48 Hours episode. What are your thoughts on televising trials?
A. I feel it's overdone, but the experience I had with a televised trial was fine. The technicians that handled the cameras and all did a good job. They didn't seem to divert attention from anything.
Q. Do you think it affects the public's mind of what the trial process is like, say, it lessons the severity of the law or that it makes a trial seem unreal?
A. I think that proceedings conducted in the media outside the courtroom can affect the trial. I think some televised proceedings can affect the outcome of the trial and we've seen that recently. But, on the whole, no, the televising of trials, if properly done, acquaints people with how the process works.
Q. What do you think of shows like Judge Judy and The People's Court?
A. I never watch them. They're all staged. They go by a script, from what I understand. People agree to come on the program with some rather strange lawsuits and let it resolve their supposed controversy, but I never watch them. There seems to be one on at least every hour though.
Q. There are six nationally syndicated ones.
A. I know real judges in real cases do not act like those judges in the courtroom.
Q. How realistic do you think shows like Law & Order are?
A. Law & Order is completely unrealistic to the actual trial process I'm acquainted with. They're good shows, good dramatic shows, but they're not the way cases are actually tried.
Q. Does it get heated in the courtroom like it does on Law & Order?
A. Yes, but you don't see witnesses in effect browbeat or harrassed as found on these shows. No, it's not the way cases are tried.
Q. Have you ever had to shout "order in the court!," bang your gavel over and over, or fire a gun like the judge did in the Al Pacino movie, And Justice For All?
A. No, never had to fire a gun. As far as pounding the gavel, you have to call for "no demonstration" sometimes when you have a verdict back and the case isn't over with. No, people are usually respectful and have décorum in a courtroom proceeding.
Q. Do you have a role model judge?
A. Hmm... I hadn't thought about that. I've known a lot of good judges in my life. I guess I try to pick out the best qualities in all of them. My father and my predecessors on the bench in my jurisdiction all seem to have done very good jobs. There are just too many good judges with too many good qualities that's it's hard to pick out anyone in particular.
Q. Judge Roy Bean is a legend in Texas. Can you tell our readers who he was?
A. He was a legendary justice of the peace. He followed the railroad from California to New Orleans, declared himself the "law west of the Pecos," and, out in a little town in Texas called Langtry, which was named after the British actress Lillie Langtry, he would conduct his proceedings on the bar of his saloon and mainly hear cases involving people who got drunk and raised Cain after coming out of his saloon. He tried Chinese railroad workers. He claimed he couldn't find anything in the books that it was against the law to kill a "Chinaman." I don't think he ever really tried to hang anyone. It's all legend. And, there's a dispute if Lillie Langtry ever actually came through the town by railroad.
Q. Where did the expression that a judge "sits on the bench" come from?
A. Didn't it come from the courts of England where there were benchers? Benchers I think are the barristers that come and listen to the court proceedings. I don't know. They could have easily called it the table or the counter or something else.
Q. And why call it "the bar?"
A. The bar refers to the bar of the court, the rail that separates the infieldthe pit of the court, the chancery so to speakfrom the spectator. And, if you're admitted to the bar, it means you can come forward and represent your client's case in court.
Q. Where does the black robe come from?
A. That's tradition from the paraphernalia that the English judges wore, the powdered wigs, the staff. When they called the court to order, they put the staff in front of the bench. It became black, from what I understand, when Queen Anne died and they decreed a year of mourning, and they just kept wearing the black robes. But there's no universal rule that robes have to be black. In fact, I wear a navy blue robe.
Q. Speaking of blue, who would you rather have frisk you, Angie Dickinson's Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson or Mariska Hargitay's Det. Olivia Benson?
A. I'd want to first know by what authority they had to pull me over and then demand an invasion of my privacy.
Q. Okay, who's the better cop?
A. Mariska, I mean, Detective Benson. Definitely.
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