by Hon. Wanda McKee Fowler (Ret.), Wright & Close, LLP

“Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might.” Ecclesiastes 9:10. That bit of wisdom perfectly sums up Chief Justice Tom Gray’s approach to life. His life is an example of focus, work, and perseverance. He says his “public school teachers instilled in him and his siblings the belief that with hard work you can be what you want.”

From the time he was a kid in Conroe, Texas, he was working on neighbors’ yards, sacking groceries, and working for a “lady down the street who had a landscaping business.” By the time he was 14, he spent all of his weekends at his family’s farm in Madisonville, Texas where they grew corn. As the youngest, he was responsible for the “down row,” which had been knocked down by the tractor and had to be picked up off the ground.

Even becoming a judge was work for him. Although he knew he wanted to be a lawyer before high school and thought about being a judge in high school, he didn’t take a direct route to achieve those goals. Instead, he went into accounting because “it was a working man’s field.”

Fate had a little to do with it as well. He did not realize until the summer before his senior year in college that he had to take the LSAT. He took it and applied only to Baylor Law School because it was the only law school he knew. The same day he received his rejection letter from Baylor Law School, his auditing professor “pitched” grad school to him and offered him a graduate teaching position. He accepted on the spot. He began grad school at Sam Houston State University, where he had obtained his BBA, and then transferred to A&M, where he graduated with a Masters in Business Administration in accounting. With his graduate degree under his belt, Justice Gray moved to Houston, joining what was then one of the “Big 8” accounting firms, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells. His work ethic led him to be promoted to a senior accountant after only his second year—a feat accomplished at that point by only one other person. He loved his work at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, but after three years, he decided he needed to return to his original plan of becoming a lawyer.

This time he came knocking on its door, Baylor University Law School was glad to have him as a student. At Baylor another professor had a major impact on the course of his life. A law professor had a friend in Corsicana who needed help with probate and estate planning work. Knowing of Judge Gray’s accounting background, the professor suggested Justice Gray, who took the job. Once again fate intervened. Shortly after he arrived at the firm a client contacted the firm about estate litigation. This began Justice Gray’s entrée into litigation.

He found the work interesting, but remembering his goal to become a judge, Justice Gray knew he would have a better shot at becoming a judge if he went to a larger firm in a metropolis. Soon he joined Fulbright and Jaworski in Dallas. He says his real asset at Fulbright was in seeing the opposing side’s point of view. He became part of a team of lawyers called “the jerks,” because their function was to argue the other side’s case and thereby help prepare the trial team for trial. He became the defacto appellate lawyer for the Dallas office before it had an appellate section.

Even though he switched his work to Dallas, Justice Gray continued to live in Corsicana and kept his contacts with Waco. One day in February of 1996 on his way to work in Dallas he heard on the radio that the Chief Justice of the Waco Court of Appeals had died. He felt that “someone was telling him he needed to apply for the job.” He applied, but as with his first try at law school, he was unsuccessful. Still this unsuccessful bid for an appointment ultimately paved his way to the court, because now, others knew he was interested in a spot on the court. When Associate Justice Cummins decided not to run again he told Justice Gray. Immediately Justice Gray focused on that spot and began running for it —not without an additional snag, though. He learned that he could not stay at his firm while running in a contested race. So he left Fulbright and for a year was a municipal judge in Rice, Texas.

With the general election in November of 1998, Justice Gray realized his long-held goal to become a judge. In 2003 he was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court advisory committee on court procedure and administration, and later that year Governor Rick Perry appointed him Chief Justice of the Tenth Court of Appeals.

Chief Justice Gray has the following to say about bench briefs, oral argument, and other topics:

  • Bench Exhibits – Typically bench briefs and exhibits are not very helpful; they usually are given to the court at the beginning of an argument, which is too late. As Justice Gray says, “If it is a helpful exhibit, I want it filed with the brief.” The most useful exhibits have been surveys or maps in boundary disputes or oil and gas pooling disputes, family trees in probate matters, and timelines.
  • Oral Arguments – Waco hears approximately 400 cases a year; of that number only about 5%—20 cases—will be argued. Justice Gray says lawyers are most effective at argument when they admit their case’s weaknesses and discuss their case from a new perspective. Lawyers are least effective when they attempt to read documents or their argument to the court.
  • Cases of First Impression – When deciding cases of first impression Justice Gray will look for the closest analogous statutes or cases. He also will look at law from other states to help interpret a new statute, but does so only if the other state’s statute is the same as the Texas statute he is interpreting.
  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Gray’s judicial philosophy is “conservative.” This is not necessarily the “conservative” in the sense of modern political rhetoric, but rather in narrowing the point to be decided. He prefers to answer specific questions and believes that judges should not engage in broad, “sweeping” legal statements. He believes the law should move forward in “baby steps.”
  • When asked what he likes most about being an appellate judge, Justice Gray said he enjoys “taking a very difficult case and walking a reader through it so they can understand it.”

    Ever true to his motto, Justice Gray is not a man of leisure. For a number of years his wife had an antique shop; he was her handyman. For him life continues “to be about work.” Now, when he is not on the bench he can be found fixing broken things such as furniture or equipment or “working on court stuff.”