Interview of Justice Richard Hightower
by Jill Schumacher, Daniels & Tredennick, LLP
1. Who are you as a person?
I grew up in Livingston, Texas, born into a family full of public servants. My father was an attorney and District Attorney and my brother a State Representative. I have other relatives who are lawyers, judges, sheriffs, county clerks, and educators. I am honored to have a high school named after my uncle in Missouri City, and a prison named after my grandfather in Dayton. I have lived in Houston for over 30 years and have one adult son who attended Houston public schools.
2. Who are you as a professional? (What is your professional/educational background?)
I received my undergraduate degree in English at Baylor (1978) and graduated from Baylor Law School (1980). I am a 4thgeneration Baylor graduate and have remained very active in Baylor activities. I began my legal practice in Longview, Texas working with T. John Ward, who eventually became a United States District Judge in Marshall Texas. I moved to Houston in 1986 and became a trial partner at Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline, and later opened Richard F. Hightower P.C. in 2000. My private practice focused on the interests of public school districts and community colleges. I have also served as the mediator in hundreds of cases.
3. What do you like to do in your free time?
I love all college sports and have season tickets to Baylor football. I also enjoy going to Rockets, Texans, and Astros games. I have two chocolate labs and a Staffordshire bull terrier. I have many close friends who I enjoy seeing when I can.
4. What are some of the items (either leisure or professional) that you always intend to cross off your to-do list/bucket list, but never quite manage to go away?
There are many places in the world that I would like to see before my sun sets. I would like to see the Astros play the Yankees in Yankee stadium.
5. What made you decide to attend law school? Do the same things, or different things, motivate you to continue serving as a lawyer?
My father was a lawyer as were several of my uncles. It is what I always knew that I would do. My mother was an English teacher and passed down an enjoyment of both reading and writing, which fit in well with a legal career. For me, being a lawyer was not just the profession I chose, it is a way of life and a way of thinking. With time, you develop a keen understanding and appreciation for the obstacles that all lawyers face. My Dad loved being a lawyer and practiced until he was 80. Although I have always said I wouldn’t practice that long, it wouldn’t surprise me if I did. I have no idea what I would do if I didn’t practice law.
6. Tell us about your career as a lawyer. What has been most important to you?
The first half of my legal career was as a trial lawyer, practicing on both sides of the docket. The second half involved the representation of educational entities, heavily involved in the administrative grievance process, internal investigations, and governance. I have also mediated hundreds of cases. As a young lawyer, my senior partner and I took one case to the United States Supreme Court where we lost in a 6-3 decision. It has always been important to me to maintain positive relationships with the lawyers I worked with and against, and to have a reputation for being competent, honest, and professional.
7. What are some of the regular sources of happiness and/or pride in your life?
I have enjoyed remaining active in my college’s undergraduate and law school activities. I have a large family and enjoy those relationships. I also have three dogs that I enjoy spending time with. I usually have a book by my bed that I am reading, and I enjoy watching sports and movies.
8. What personal or professional accomplishment of yours brings you the greatest source of happiness and/or pride?
Second-chairing a case that was argued at the United States Supreme Court and being elected to the 1st Court of Appeals have been great sources of pride. I received satisfaction in my school law practice by finding solutions to problems that were causing anxiety to administrators, students, and/or parents. I also take pride in my son’s accomplishments.
9. When did you first realize that you might be interested in becoming an appellate justice?
I considered running for a seat on the 14th Court of Appeals in 1996, but at the last minute changed my mind and decided to continue in my private practice. I have always enjoyed the reading and writing part of practicing law and even during law school thought that at some point I would seek an appellate bench.
10. Excluding any career within the field of law, what is your dream job?
Coaching high school baseball and/or basketball and teaching English.
11. Who have been your strongest mentors? What did you learn from their example?
My first boss out of law school, T. John Ward. He eventually became a Federal District Judge in the Eastern District of Texas and has always been my strongest mentor. He taught me the gray areas of professionalism including how to represent your client while remaining cordial and cooperative with opposing counsel. His cardinal rules were (1) you don’t lie to another lawyer; (2) you don’t oppose a first motion for continuance; and (3) you don’t interfere with another lawyer’s vacation. These simple rules have served me well.
12. What are the philosophies, ideas, or practical tips you try to impart to the people you mentor?
Find your own voice. You can learn from others, but you can’t imitate them. Find a tone and rhythm that is comfortable to you.
13. What are the least and most exciting aspects of your role as a justice?
Most Exciting: The interaction with the other justices on the court and my chambers’ lawyers in finding the right answer to the matters we review.
Least Exciting: So many new matters coming across my desk each day that often demand immediate attention.
14. How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
My judicial philosophy centers around the word reasonable. Judges should apply a reasonable interpretation of the law to the facts presented. Judges are bound by legal precedent and should seek results that are consistent, reliable, and fair.
15. What are the biggest challenges in implementing your judicial philosophy?
To date, I have not had any challenges in implementing my philosophy. However, appellate courts do their work in panels of three, or occasionally en banc,which requires a justice to take into consideration the concerns and considerations of his or her colleagues.
16. What has surprised you the most about your new role? What has been exactly as you expected?
The staff attorneys are the electricity that make the appellate courts run. I’m not sure “surprised” is the right word, but I have been impressed by the ability and dedication of the staff attorneys who I have worked with.
17. 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?
With so much to read, I have been very appreciative and impressed by advocates who make their points in a clear and concise manner, and don’t raise issues that have already been clearly determined by superior courts. I personally prefer short sentences.
18. In your opinion, 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?
Let me know early where you are going in your brief and give me a very reasoned approach to why your client should prevail. If you have bad facts or a bad case to deal with, hit it head on, and give me a blue print to help me write around those facts or that case, assuming I agree with your argument.
19. Which aspect of judging do you enjoy the most?
When “the light comes on,” and I am confident that I have reached the correct result.
20. What is the question we didn’t ask that we should have asked? What is the answer to that question?
Tell me about your three dogs.
Jake – Chocolate Lab – almost 12
Ginger – Chocolate Lab – almost 12 (sibling to Jake)
Judy – Staffordshire Bull Terrier – Rescue from Hurricane Harvey