by Stephen Barrick, Hicks Thomas LLP
Chief Justice Rogelio Valdez of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals has come a long way from his humble beginnings.
One of ten children, Justice Valdez is the son of immigrant farm workers. Born in the small farming community of Raymondville, Texas, in South Texas, Justice Valdez grew up on a farm and worked as a migrant farm worker as a youth. That work took him all over the country and forced him to miss two years of school as a teenager. When he graduated from high school (two years late, because of work), he was the first in his family to do so.
Justice Valdez developed an interest in the law at an early age. He first learned about practicing law from his grandfather, who had been a legal advisor in Mexico. As a boy, Justice Valdez used to earn extra money shining shoes at the local courthouse, where he would often sit in on trials to watch the lawyers in action. Justice Valdez’s favorite television show growing up was Perry Mason, and he wanted to be like Perry Mason.
After high school, Justice Valdez attended Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M University – Kingsville), where he was elected Student Body President. After graduating in four years with a liberal arts degree, he went straight to law school, attending Texas Southern University in Houston. While in law school, he interned at the district attorney’s office and worked in the legal aid clinic, where he met his future wife, Adelita.
After law school, Justice Valdez worked a few years at a title company and as a solo practitioner. Then a friend who had been elected District Attorney in Cameron County offered him a job as an assistant district attorney. Justice Valdez accepted the offer and moved to Brownsville to become a prosecutor. Only a year later, however, when the judge of County Court at Law No. 1 decided to run for a district court seat, Justice Valdez saw an opportunity and decided to run for the county court-at-law seat. He won that election and became one of the youngest county court-at-law judges in the State, only four years out of law school.
Justice Valdez served as the Judge of County Court at Law No. 1 in Cameron County for four years. Then, in 1986, after the State created a new district court, he decided to run for that open seat. Before the election, however, the Governor appointed someone else to fill the seat, and Justice Valdez found himself running against an incumbent in a hotly-contested primary. Justice Valdez ultimately prevailed and became the first elected judge of the 357th District Court of Cameron and Willacy Counties. Justice Valdez credits his success, in part, to the rising influence of Hispanic voters in South Texas.
Justice Valdez served as a district court judge for fourteen years. Then, in 2000, he ran for an open seat on the Thirteenth Court of Appeals. He was opposed in the primary by another district court judge from Corpus Christi, and it turned into a heated primary battle between two sitting judges. But Justice Valdez again prevailed in the primary, ran unopposed in the general election, and became the first Hispanic Chief Justice of the Thirteenth Court of Appeals. Since then, Justice Valdez has never drawn an opponent in any election.
Justice Valdez happily reports that he has enjoyed every judicial office he has held, and he enjoys the appellate bench in particular because it affords him the time and resources to carefully consider every case. By comparison, he jokes, being a district court judge is like being an air traffic controller: you have to deal with cases and issues as they arise and quickly move on to the next one, with little time for reflection.
Argument in the Thirteenth Court of Appeals
In the Thirteenth Court of Appeals, cases are assigned to a judge or panel once the case is ready for submission. Oral argument is not routinely granted; instead, it is granted only in cases where the court believes it will be helpful. Justice Valdez noted, however, that the court will sometimes schedule oral argument if a party files a motion after oral argument is denied explaining why oral argument is necessary.
When oral argument is presented, Justice Valdez believes the best advocates are the ones who are knowledgeable about the state of the law and are candid with the court about the record. Argument that over-emphasizes the equities, or attempts to over-simplify the key legal issues, is not particularly effective. Justice Valdez believes that demonstrative exhibits are helpful during oral argument in cases that involve complicated or evolving facts, and he appreciates it when lawyers use exhibits to make the court’s job easier.
As a jurist, Justice Valdez believes that courts should be as open and transparent as possible and that litigants should have their day in court. For this reason, he tends to disfavor summary judgments and to give great deference to jury verdicts. Justice Valdez prefers to keep his opinions as brief and to-the-point as possible, and he rarely authors separate opinions.
Justice Valdez has received many accolades over the years. He has been honored as Hispanic of the Year by Image of Brownsville, Outstanding Citizen by the Harlingen Jaycees, Exemplary Former Migrant Student by the Texas Education Agency, and Pro Bono Honoree by the Cameron County Pro Bono Project. Most recently, in 2012, Justice Valdez was named a Distinguished Alumnus by Texas A&M University – Kingsville.
Justice Valdez has five adult children, ranging in age from 24 to 34, and two grandchildren. A self-described workaholic, Justice Valdez has little spare time for hobbies and pastimes. But in what little spare time he has, Justice Valdez likes to return to his roots and work with his hands on his horse ranch near Harlingen.