Justice Ann Crawford McClure of the Texas 8th Court of Appeals is the first female chief justice in the court’s more than 100-year history.
When McClure first came on the court 18 years ago, its four justices were some of the youngest in the country. It would become known as the “rainbow coalition.”
“We had a Hispanic chief justice, two women, and a justice who was half Asian and half Hispanic,” McClure says. “People just didn’t know what to do with us.”
Perhaps less known was the group’s enthusiasm for “Star Trek.” More on that a little later.
In October 2011, McClure replaced Chief Justice David Wellington Chew, who retired from the bench and moved to South Texas where he is involved in commercial real estate development.
McClure, 59, was born in Cincinnati, but moved with her family to San Antonio when she was 22-months-old, so she considers herself a Texas native.
“I got here as fast as I could,” she says.
In high school, McClure competed in debate and extemporaneous speaking. She loved it, and thought she would become a speech and debate teacher, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
In college, however, she did a lot of radio, television and film work.
“I married shortly after college and it was very difficult to get employed in Houston with either radio or television unless you were willing to work the graveyard shifts, which is not conducive to a happy marriage,” McClure says.
So she took a job as a legal assistant instead and discovered she had a knack for drafting arguments.
McClure earned her law degree from the University of Houston Law Center in 1979 and became the first lawyer from West Texas to obtain board certification in Civil Appellate Law.
McClure maintained a statewide appellate practice until 1994, when she was elected to the 8th Court of Appeals.
The court is an “error correction court,” and its three justices are responsible for reviewing cases and looking for mistakes committed by the trial courts.
The court hears appeals from all civil and criminal cases, except death penalty cases, and has jurisdiction over 17 counties in the western part of Texas.
McClure is a past president of both the El Paso Bar Association and the Trans Pecos Bar Association.
She has served as chair of the State Bar of Texas Appellate Section, the Family Law Section and the Appellate Division of the Judicial Section. She was also one of the original members of the Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals.
She has received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Texas Christian University and the Gene Cavin Award from the State Bar of Texas. She and her husband David, an attorney, have two children.
McClure sat down with El Paso Inc. in her office at the top of the El Paso County Courthouse, overlooking Downtown. She talked about the court’s budget, if El Paso should have a law school, what shocked her the most when she first took the bench and, of course, “Star Trek.”
Q: How did you come to El Paso?
Love brought me to El Paso. I met my husband while we were both on a committee of the state bar to write the Texas Family Law Practice Manual.
Q: Sounds romantic.
(Laughs) It took about three years to write the book, and by the end of those three years, we had fallen in love. One of us had to relocate, and he had a 5-year-old, so I wanted to come here. I moved in 1983 and fell in love with the city.
A few years later, our son was born. I wanted to be as much of a stay-at-home mom as I could be and to be able to work from home. Two litigators do not good parents make, so I shifted entirely into appellate work.
The beauty of it is you can read briefs – that’s essentially what I do for a living – you can read them at 1 in the afternoon or 1 in the morning. That stack of papers over there…
Q: That’s today’s work?
Q: You are the court’s first female chief justice. Does that surprise you? How many other courts in Texas have had female chief justices?
We have 14 intermediate courts like this one throughout the state of Texas and six have female chiefs. It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve seen that transition.
That doesn’t surprise me. The reason it has taken a period of time for it to occur in El Paso is that the first woman didn’t join the court until ’93 or ’94.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first female chief justice in the court’s 100-year history?
It is significant because it recognizes that, in Far West Texas, we have finally reached diversity. It is amazing to think we had never had a Hispanic serve on the court until Albert Armendariz Sr. joined the court.
He was appointed but didn’t want to seek election, so it wasn’t until Richard Barajas was appointed and then elected to the bench in 1994 that we had our first elected Hispanic, then our first Hispanic chief justice.
Q: What is the caseload right now?
It varies, but the rough average I would give you is 400 opinions per year.
Q: Is that burdensome?
It depends on the nature of the cases you’re writing. If we’re talking about a summary judgment proceeding in which there is only one issue, we can turn those fairly quickly.
We get enormous oil and gas cases out of the Permian Basin. The records and exhibits in those cases can fill this office. So they are very time-consuming cases to work through. We’re always busy.
Q: What other kinds of cases do you see?
We have a high criminal docket. At one time, I would have said it was 60/40, but right now it is probably 55/45 criminal over civil. Probably the hottest area is employment litigation. As a result of tort reform, medical malpractice cases have declined. We’ve seen a decline in serious personal injury cases.
We get a lot of family law litigation – more so now in terms of relocation litigation, particularly with Fort Bliss. Those proceedings don’t go through the military courts; they are litigated in our district.
Q: Relocation litigation?
Parents who are divorced are spending quality time with their child, and then, either for remarriage or because of a job, one parent wants to leave. So where does the child live? It’s very problematic, it is very painful and there is a lot of it taking place.
Q: How many opinions have you authored over the course of your career?
I have authored some 1,500 opinions with a reversal rate of 1.6 percent.
Q: What was one of your most difficult cases?
I would have to tell you, Robby, that the most shocking thing to me when I came on the bench was the amount of child abuse and child sexual abuse that occurs in our community. I knew it existed, I had dealt with it in family law litigation, but it is so prevalent and it is increasing.
The case that was the most heartbreaking to me was the one involving a 6-year-old girl. Her mother had been in a car accident and was in rehab for a long time, so the little girl went to live with her grandmother.
The grandmother met a man, much younger than she, but who purportedly fell in love with her. He did tell her that he had been accused of child sexual offenses in the past, but the grandmother believed he was innocent. They get married.
They had Friday night “family night” and the grandmother would make these costumes for the little girl – very provocative sexual costumes. While the stepfather was having sex with this little girl, you could hear in the video – and we have to watch these videos – the child crying for her grandmother, “Please make it stop.”
You can see the grandmother in the background with her hand over the little girl’s mouth and hear her saying, “Just hush. It will be over soon.”
That one kept me up at night because the grandmother was such a facilitator to what the stepfather was doing. He got life and she got 65 or 70 years in jail, but that poor girl.
Q: You were also shocked by the prevalence of domestic violence?
That’s very prevalent, and you see it increase as there’s economic decline. It is as common in the dating community as it is in the marital community.
I try to use my experiences, what I see come across my desk, to teach teenagers locally. There are patterns you can watch for and things you need to be on the lookout for.
The program started out through the bar association and was designed for seniors in high school – to teach them communication skills, to teach them the consequences of early teen marriage, teen pregnancy, teen divorce.
But as education has progressed in 20 years, most of the schools felt they didn’t have time available in the curriculum for us to continue that program. The only school that still has it is the School-Age Parent Center, and these are girls of 13, 14, 15 or 16 who are pregnant or have just given birth.
For them, parenting is so out of their realm, because they are children themselves. Domestic violence in those relationships is rising.
Q: What do you think is causing a rise in child abuse?
Some of the issues are the same as domestic violence. It’s anger control issues or control, period. When people are losing their jobs, or afraid of losing their jobs, they’re more apt to explode in anger when things aren’t going their way.
Child abuse is also a result of people having children younger and younger and not having the emotional skills or maturity to deal with a crying infant in the middle of the night.
Q: Texas lawmakers passed the two-year budget recently. Did you get the funding you need?
The budget that came out of the conference committee is, in my view, wonderful.
Last session and the session before, everybody was expected to cut by 10 percent. For us, that means cutting salaries. About 96 percent of our roughly $1.5-million a year budget is staff.
So we were unable to provide raises, and we get raided. We lost staff attorneys to the city attorney’s office, which can pay more. We lost staff attorneys to the U.S. attorney’s office, which can pay more. The county attorney can pay more. The public defender can pay more. Then you have the private law firms that offer even more than that.
We would bring people on board and invest time and energy in training them, but couldn’t keep them. When you’ve got the caseload we do, we can’t just keep training.
Q: So is this budget the fix?
This session looked more hopeful because the state brought in more revenue. We requested an additional $487,314 to help restore what they took from our budget two sessions ago.
We got half of our request – about $122,000 per year over the biennium. That will help tremendously in increasing salaries for our staff so we can be competitive.
Q: Is it hard to recruit legal professionals in El Paso?
You bet. A judge here was looking for law clerks, needed two because we had been raided, right? He received four applications. Four!
Q: There’s no law school here.
And that’s a problem. You know, it’s amazing you would raise that point, because the court in Waco is always telling us they don’t have any trouble recruiting. But they have a law school.
Q: Does El Paso need one?
It would be great to have a law school. I will tell you we are thrilled with the Law School Preparatory Institute that the University of Texas at El Paso has.
It is designed to better prepare students who want to go to law school. They have like a 98-percent admission rate across the country. As the students come back to El Paso, between years in law school, we get calls from the university and they send us some of the students to put to work as interns.
Q: We often talk about the shortage of physicians in El Paso and how great it is to have a new medical school. I’m going to hazard a guess that we don’t have a shortage of lawyers.
There are 1,300 lawyers in El Paso.
Q: That sounds like a pretty good number, but I have nothing to compare it to.
It is. But we would like to keep our people here.
Q: How frequently does the court of appeals reverse the decisions of judges here?
It’s under 30 percent. Most of the reversals have to do with our finding a fact issue in summary judgment or whether or not a dispute is subject to arbitration.
Q: Do you ever second guess yourself or worry you made a mistake?
Oh, sure. I’m human. We get difficult cases. We get political cases, and they’re never easy; you know you are going to make headlines when the opinion comes out. The one we did on the John Cook recall was just exactly such a case. We knew it would be difficult, but we take our oath seriously.
The day I make a decision that’s based on politics or is based on what lawyer is representing a certain party or even how I feel about an issue, when I let that control my judgment, then I need to retire.
Q: What if you disagree with the law?
We have to follow what the high courts tell us and what the Legislature tells us. We may not always agree with it, but we have to follow it.
I have written some opinions where I didn’t agree with the law. This court has historically written what we call political dissents where we say, “We agree they correctly applied the law but here’s why we don’t like it and why we wish the Legislature or Supreme Court would address this issue.”
Q: Would you recommend the legal profession?
You sort of have to find your niche where litigation is going. Water law is big. Environmental law is big. International law is big. Immigration law is big.
I don’t want to see the legal profession become outdated, unnecessary or disrespected. I am a huge devotee of professionalism.
The law profession is often disrespected. People rate lawyers lower than car mechanics, and yet here we are – judges – and our rating is towards the top at 77 percent. I don’t understand that. There must be some sort of “Star Trek” cloaking device in the robe.
Q: Are you a trekkie?
Yeah, from way back. When I first came on the court, we were the youngest appellate court in the country.
They used to call us the rainbow coalition because we had a Hispanic chief justice, two women and a justice who was half Asian and half Hispanic. People just didn’t know what to do with us.
We were just so outside the norm that we adopted the Vulcan salute. When we’d get off the bench and go have case conference, we would go, “Live long and prosper.” (Holds up both hands in a Vulcan salute).
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.