Judge Chris Oldner has his dad to thank for his legal career — and vice versa.
While growing up in Collin County, Oldner says he played the role of a pro se defendant when he wound up in trouble with his father, John Oldner.
“I used to always get in arguments with my dad when I got in trouble. And I was usually able to lessen my sentence. And that led to logical thinking and rational discussions. And my dad encouraged it,” Oldner says. “He was always willing to engage in verbal fisticuffs with me and that got me rolling that way.”
So after Oldner graduated from Baylor University in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in political science — “a tremendously useful degree,” he says — Oldner headed to Lubbock to Texas Tech University School of Law. While in law school, Oldner’s nonlawyer father, who had worked as a hardware engineer for computer companies and owned a series of car repair shops, would continue to engage his son in legal debates. The elder Oldner wanted to know everything about the law school classes his son was taking.
“He would discuss my classes with me, and it would drive him crazy,” Oldner says.
So when Oldner earned his law degree in 1993, John Oldner entered Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth, earning his J.D. in 1995. John Oldner now is a Plano solo who practices family law and criminal defense.
While Chris Oldner’s relationship with his father made him the perfect candidate for a career in criminal defense, he chose the opposite path and became a Smith County assistant district attorney in 1993. A year later he went home and took a job as a prosecutor in the Collin County District Attorney’s Office.
Oldner always wanted to become a judge and saw his opportunity in 1999 when the Texas Legislature created Collin County Court-at-Law No. 5. He won that bench in 2000. Then, in 2003, Gov. Rick Perry appointed Oldner to the 416th District Court.
Most people don’t know that underneath the black robe is a former black T-shirt-wearing heavy metal rocker. In high school, Oldner was a member of Taskmaster, a heavy-metal cover band that attempted to duplicate the fine work of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Oldner played guitar, a Fender Telecaster Custom to be exact. “This was high school, so come on,” Oldner says of the cringe-inducing band name.
“We got paid for a couple of gigs,” Oldner says. “But high school tore us apart.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who grew up in Richardson near Collin County where all mid-1980s teens were required to listen to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, e-mailed Oldner some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Chris Oldner
416th District Court
Texas Lawyer: What was the transition from advocate to jurist like for you?
Judge Chris Oldner: It was a little rocky at first. It is a strange experience to realize that the relationships you have had for years with many lawyer friends [have] changed literally overnight and will never return to what [they were]. I missed the camaraderie I had with other lawyers. I missed the advocacy and the rush in delivering a great closing.
TL: What’s the most noticeable difference between a district court bench as opposed to serving on a county court bench?
Oldner: I did not fully appreciate the weight of many of the decisions I would have to make on the district court bench and how life-changing the decisions would be for the litigants that appear before me. It is not just an intellectual challenge, but also a psychological one.
TL: What do lawyers do in your courtroom that drives you absolutely insane, beyond the normal not being prepared for a hearing, showing up late or arguing with each other?
Oldner: Not listen. Not to each other, not to their clients, not to the court staff, not to the judge. This is a recipe for losing not just your argument, but the respect of the court and your peers.
TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?
Oldner: Nothing out of the ordinary. I try to run the courtroom in a way that respects all of the participants and the process. As long as you do the same, you will be fine.
TL: What aspect of your job makes you uncomfortable?
Oldner: I do not know if uncomfortable is the right word, but there is no joy or satisfaction in deciding a close child-custody matter, especially when you see years of conflict ahead for the child. I have three little girls, and it would be maddening to think a stranger in a black robe gets to decide when and under what circumstances I would get to see them.
TL: If there is one thing a lawyer should know about how you run a trial, what would that be?
Oldner: We start early and we stay late. Do not waste the jury’s time.
TL: Will lawyers score points with you if they can recite the words from the Judas Priest classic “Breaking the Law”?
Oldner: Only if they can replicate a Rob Halford [Judas Priest's lead singer] scream. That was one of the songs my band used to play, by the way.
TL: Of all of the cases you’ve heard so far, which one are you the most proud of?
Oldner: I don’t know that I am really proud of any case that was tried. The credit for those goes to the lawyers. I have several civil and family cases that reached agreed settlements after hearings or partial rulings, and the solution worked for all the parties involved. Those cases are very satisfying, especially if kids are involved.
TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?
Oldner: A SAPCR [suit affecting the parent-child relationship] case when neither parent displays any understanding of what is in the best interest of the child and how damaging the conflict is to the child. As a judge, I know there will be no final resolution. As a father, I know the child is being hurt, and I feel somewhat helpless to stop it.
TL: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought, “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”
Oldner: I had a pro se defendant sing “This Little Light of Mine” in his closing. Not just a snippet, the whole song.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.