by Mark Trachtenberg, Haynes & Boone, LLP
1. Hello Justice Landau! Thanks for making the time to do this interview. To begin, would you tell our audience a little about who you are, where you grew up, etc.?
Hello! Thank you for the opportunity. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Texas. I moved here “temporarily” to clerk for Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore. Instead of moving back to New York as planned, I made a great life here. I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with stops in Minneapolis, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, and New Orleans.
2. Now more than 13 months into the job of appellate justice, what has been your favorite part of the job?
It is extremely satisfying to solve the legal puzzles that come across my desk and apply the law without fear or favor.
3. What has been the biggest surprise for you?
It has got to be the volume of the work. Every week, we author two cases and read, comment, and vote on four others. In between those six cases, we finalize opinions, sometimes changing them drastically in the process, we work on mandamus petitions and motions seeking panel or en banc review, and outreach to the public. The second biggest surprise is that I assumed I would spend most of my time writing, when, in fact, most of my time is spent reading.
4. Tell us about your career before ascending to the bench. How has your career shaped your judicial philosophy?
I’ve worked from many perspectives in the law. I’ve done civil (Vinson & Elkins LLP), I’ve done criminal and juvenile (Federal Public Defender’s Office and Harris County Public Defender’s Office), I’ve done state and federal, public and private, and trial and appellate work. Until recently, I used to teach Appellate Litigation at Texas Southern University. I think working in different ways has taught me to assume that everyone is doing their best and just doing their job. It has also led me to not assume I know what the law is. Every time I start looking at a case, I open my statute book and reread the relevant cases. Everyone has law feelings about how they think the law is, but even when you think you know, there are exceptions to rules and changes to statutes. It’s important to get it right, being kind if you possibly can, because people’s lives are at stake.
5. In your time serving as a justice, have you discovered anything that is particularly helpful for advocates to do? What have you seen from advocates that could be improved?
Advocates who get to the point quickly are my favorites. Building suspense is not a thing in effective legal writing. I used to tell my students to “declare, then explain.”
6. What distinguishes an effective appellate brief from one that is not? Do you have any suggestions about how attorneys can improve their written work product in the court of appeals?
Many of us at the court read briefs on screens. Techniques that improve digital readability help us better absorb your arguments. Breaking up walls of text, using charts and bullet points where appropriate – these are all ways of keeping the reader visually engaged. Some cases don’t really lend themselves to these techniques, but you can always make good use of descriptive section headings and subheadings that let one idea set up the next. Saying more with fewer words is also effective.
7. Who was your biggest mentor and what did you learn from him or her?
At every stage, I’ve been lucky to have or conscript mentors. When I worked in New York, I had two senior associates who convinced me I needed to set aside my transactional law aspirations and become a litigator. Since I clerked, Judge Gilmore has advised me on career transitions. The head of the appellate section at the Federal Public Defender’s Office was crucial to making me the best appellate lawyer I could be. I had friends who mentored and partnered with me when I switched gears from appellate to trial. I would not have thought to run for office had my colleague at Harris County not urged me to do it. The common theme with all my mentors has been the philosophy of “Why not?”
8. OK, enough of the law questions. What do you like to do for fun?
I have restarted running recently so I can participate in the Harris County Employee 5K. Reasonable minds may differ on whether this qualifies as fun. I also enjoy trying to not kill plants and teaching myself Spanish.
9. Name a favorite travel destination and the destination that remains at the top of your bucket list!
My favorite place I’ve been is Tanzania. We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and saw amazing animals on safari. The bucket list is a moving target. Lately, it’s been Tahiti/Bora Bora/New Zealand’s South Island.
10. What’s your favorite legal-themed movie? And legal-themed book?
I love Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The disconnect between the hero’s daydreams depicting him as the hero and his life as a bureaucrat mired in the limitations of the system has emotional truth. Also, the Robert De Niro cameo is excellent.
Unlikely Heroes by Jack Bass, about Fifth Circuit Judge John Minor Wisdom and his colleagues during the Civil Rights era is good inspiration for anyone preparing for an argument before that court.
11. What is the question we didn’t ask that we should have asked? What is the answer to that question?
This is pretty thorough so there isn’t really anything missing, but you might have also asked about the hardest part of the job. Following the law when it leads to an unreasonable or unjust result is not easy, but we have to stay in our lane. If we are doing our jobs right, it should happen with some frequency. We are limited by the issues the parties raise and the applicable precedent. Where the party has raised the issue and the law is working an unjust, perhaps unintended, result, I write a concurrence explaining the issue. Then it’s up to the legislature or the highest court to hopefully remedy the problem.
12. Thank you so much for participating in this interview, Justice Landau!
This has been fun! Thanks for inviting me.