Saturday, December 27, 2014

Workmanlike judging may be an asset for Bert Richardson on Court of Criminal Appeals

Peggy Fikac has a nice profile in the SA Express-News (Dec. 25) of incoming Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Bert Richardson, whom Grits had supported in the GOP primary due primarily to his knack for not being Barbara Walther. I got to know him a bit over the course of the campaign, though, like him a lot, and am hopeful about his prospects.

Fikac's story was prompted by Richardson presiding over Rick Perry's indictment, but given that in January he'll begin a six-year term on Texas' high criminal court, CCA watchers may be interested in the assessments offered of Richardson's background and judicial skills. Lately, since losing a judicial election in Bexar County in 2008, Richardson has worked "As a visiting judge whose territory includes multiple counties," wrote Fikac, "he has been handling everything from a regular prison docket in South Texas to high-profile murder cases." However:
in his spare time, he works as a freelance photographer shooting sports for a running magazine and capturing moments around his San Antonio home, at the Texas Capitol or in the counties he visits in his day job.

For Richardson, photography provides a focus on something outside the courtroom.

“They’re so completely different. That’s why I like it,” Richardson said, adding with a dash of wry humor that acknowledges the perils of covering sporting events, “I can just forget about what I do, and nobody knows who I am when I show up at my other job — and get bossed around by cops and pushed around by photographers, reporters and track officials.”
St. Mary's law prof Geary Reamy “said Richardson, whom he described as 'very humble and unassuming,' also 'seems unflappable.' He said Richardson is widely respected by people of 'various political and legal persuasions,' including Democrats, Republicans, prosecutors and defense lawyers
'as being somebody who’s fair-minded. He’s very even-handed.'”

Richardson is "The son of an Air Force fighter pilot," wrote Fikac, who "graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He did his Mormon mission in Argentina (he’s fluent in Spanish). He considered entering the photography program at the Art Center College of Design in California. Instead, he returned to Texas for law school at St. Mary’s."

Judge Richardson "served as an assistant district attorney in Bexar County before a year in the U.S. attorney’s office," then "was appointed in 1999 to the newly created 379th Judicial District by then-Gov. George W. Bush to fill a vacancy and presided over high-profile cases. ... He was twice elected to the post, then lost the seat to a Democrat in 2008." Since then, "He ended up becoming a visiting judge and said in more than five years has presided over cases in more than 40 counties. He also teaches at St. Mary’s and is “of counsel” to a San Antonio law firm, LM Tatum."

Endearingly, Richardson "continues his photography, shooting the University Interscholastic League cross-country meet in Round Rock just days after the general election." Indeed, “Lance Phegley, editor of Texas Runner & Triathlete, called Richardson 'our ace of aces. He is one of those guys that -- he will do anything. He’s an awesome guy. He’s an incredible photographer on top of that. … If I send Bert to shoot something, I know he’s coming back with the best shots.'” That to me is as persuasive an endorsement as any attorney could give him. The guy showing up to photograph the UIL cross country meet in Round Rock knows how to check his ego at the door and get the job done, which is a quality sorely needed on Texas' personality-and-outcome driven high criminal court.

Even so, you can never predict with appellate judges at this level how somebody might do. There are skill sets involved at which no one can have practiced until they're on the dais in Austin. Certainly, they're not learned on the trial bench. The lawyering is perhaps the easy part; there are clerks for much of that. Good writing is important, though clearly not universally required. But the politics of obtaining five or more votes for opinions, much less uniting the court, is the true, secret art of appellate judging on which the media seldom focuses. There's an expressly political aspect to judging at this level - as evidenced by a formal vote on each case among nine judges - and navigating the politics is as much a part of the job as applying the law and writing opinions. You never can tell until somebody's on the court whether they'll have the ability to construct majorities or merely express their opinions, falling into line as part of an existing faction. Time will tell. Meanwhile, Richardson and the other two, new incoming judges have a steep learning curve ahead of them, as much on the backroom political side as the legal end.


Curtis said...

I defended many cases in trial with him as a presiding judge when I covered the Karnes County docket at SCFO. He enjoyed him as both a Judge and a person. He didn't hesitate to stop proceedings to research his rulings if it was a new issue for him (which happens in prison cases for judge's who are new to that area of criminal law) and was always fair. I hope we see the same compassion and interest in fairness that I witnessed when I practiced before him.

Anonymous said...

Good news.

I have a question. How do you pronounce the name of the journalist, Fikac?


Anonymous said...

Bert is the nicest man in the world but a weak judge! I worked in his court when he first started the 379th.He reset cases because he could not make decisions. Very weak on Crime! He embarrassed us! I retired because I was so tired of the system and watching violent offenders and drunks go back to the street and Bert was the Judge I worked for. He sneaked out of the court house every day he could. Now all these glowing reviews! I have to say he is sweet and treats everyone with respect but a weak judge he is! He does not have a backbone! Watch his rulings he will go along to get along! signed retired PO who knows the work from the nice man!