A civil district courtroom is not a place usually associated with serious work-related injuries. If only that were true for Judge John Roach Jr.

On June 27, Roach was performing a hostage drill with the Collin County Sheriff’s Department and the McKinney Police Department when he was maimed in his 296th District courtroom in Collin County.

“I was being a judge in my robe, and the alleged gunman took me hostage with a courtroom full of people,” Roach says of the training exercise. “In order to seek cover, the gunman pulled me down and was down on his knees ducking under the bench. And as the SWAT team came in, they pushed him to the ground. He [the gunman] fired the gun with blanks in it within three to five inches of my head. And that’s it.”

The gunpowder that discharged from the blank scarred Roach’s forehead and damaged both of his eyes.

During surgery, “[t]hey had to pick all of the pieces out of my eyeball one at a time. They had to scrub my entire face to get the gunpowder out. And now I go into the doctor twice a week where they pull gunpowder out of my face,” Roach says. “They’re still treating my loss of vision, and I’m seeing a plastic surgeon for the scarring on my forehead.”

Roach was away from work for two weeks while he recovered, and he worked part time for a few weeks more until he recovered his vision. About 80 percent of his vision has returned. He hopes his vision will return to normal. “We’re not sure, but we certainly hope so,” he says.

If the Roach name sounds familiar, that’s because his father, John Roach Sr., was judge of the 199th District Court for 17 years and now is the Collin County district attorney. His father is a big reason Roach is a judge. “I just saw it all my life and viewed it as a good career,” he says.

After graduating from Plano East High School in 1988, Roach attended the University of Texas and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. “My dad served in the military, which I found interesting,” Roach says. “And I wanted to be in the military for my country. I know that sounds patriotic, but that’s why I did it.”

He was activated during Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 but did not deploy to Iraq. Instead, he was stationed in Yuma, Ariz., at the Marine Air Station as a crash fire and rescue specialist.

Roach received a bachelor of arts degree in government in 1994. He earned his law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1997.

While his father joined the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office after law school, Roach Jr. went a different route; he became an associate with Dallas’ Cowles & Thompson.

“I did want to be a DA, and that certainly appealed to me,” Roach says. “But the insurance defense world really piqued my interest, and that’s why I decided to do it right out of law school.”

Roach left Cowles & Thompson three-and-a-half years later and started his own general practice, the Roach Law Firm. His wife Laura, also an attorney, joined him a year later, and they grew the firm into a 14-lawyer operation by the time he ran for and won his bench in 2006.

Roach recently has made other changes in his life. He got serious about his health in January.

“I was fat,” Roach says. “On Jan. 10 of this year, I realized I was tired and not feeling well, and I decided to do something about it.” Roach started eating right and training for his first triathlon, which he completed last month.

“And as of today, I’ve lost 55 pounds,” he says. Roach had to stop training for two weeks while he recovered from his courtroom injuries. “But my new conversion to fitness and health really aided in my recovery.”

Judge John Roach Jr.
296th District Court
Elected to the Bench: 2006
Age: 39

Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council e-mailed Roach some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style:

Texas Lawyer: 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?

Judge John Roach Jr.: Insane might be an overstatement, but I am disappointed in those attorneys who do not follow courtroom etiquette and formalities. For example, every day I have to remind lawyers to stand up when addressing the court. I think the trend to informality is detrimental to the legal profession. Every time we appear in court we affect the lives, families and businesses of others. These are serious occasions. We need to treat them as such. Our clients expect it, and we should not disappoint.

TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?

Roach: As I mentioned, I am formal in court. I expect lawyers to show proper courtroom etiquette and show the appropriate amount of deference to the proceeding. Your clients are watching and, many times, so is the public. I take my job, the decisions I have to make and the effect those decisions have on others very seriously. I expect the proceedings to reflect it.

TL: What aspect of your job makes you uncomfortable?

Roach: I am not uncomfortable about any aspect of my job, but in family law cases I find it amazing how involved people want the court to be in their lives. . . . [W]here Johnny goes to school, whether Sara is going to be held back a grade, whether Joe is going to take ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] medication are [decisions] for families to make, not judges. I certainly make those decisions when I have to, but I do not like to.

TL: If there is one thing a lawyer should know about how you run a trial, what would that be?

Roach: Quickly. I maintain a very efficient courtroom. In jury trial, my goal is not to inconvenience the jurors. They are compelled to be here and spend time away from their normal day. We owe it to them to be as efficient as possible. During jury trials, we rarely have time for lunch or breaks because while the jury is at lunch, or taking their break, that is the time for hearings outside the jury’s presence. One thing you should know — bring your lunch.

TL: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought: “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”

Roach: I have had a couple of disruptions in court which were more appropriate in a local bar than in court. It always amazes [me when] this happens, when they know the judge who is about to decide their case is watching, as well as the bailiff, a police officer, and then wonder why they are going to jail.

TL: What part of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure do you find is the hardest to apply in your courtroom?

Roach: The hardest part of the rules to apply in the courtroom is the civil discovery deadline. The rule is confusing, and the exact time the discovery period began can have several parts. When we have discovery disputes and the issue is the discovery deadline according to the rules, it takes a lot of time to determine when it started and, thus, when it ends.

TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?

Roach: My least favorite kind of case to hear is one in which the attorneys are not prepared. An unprepared attorney makes things go slower, is not prepared for evidentiary objections and not prepared for other legal arguments. On the other hand, a prepared attorney is fun to watch, makes legal arguments which are well thought out and makes things move along more smoothly.

TL: What was it like for you, switching from being an advocate to being a judge?

Roach: The initial change from advocate to neutral was more challenging than I had anticipated. As a lawyer, I spent my career trying to convince the opposing attorney, opposing party, the court or a jury to see things my way. As a neutral I look at a case in a completely different way. I look closer at the real legal arguments rather than the advocacy. Despite not having the forum to be an advocate, I enjoy being a judge.

TL: How has your life changed after the accident in your courtroom?

Roach: I certainly do not want to be dramatic, but my life has changed somewhat since the accident. First, I appreciate the gift of sight much more than I ever did. At the time of the accident, my biggest fear was I would not be able to see again. Over time my eyesight has gotten better, but not to where it was. I never thought of life without sight, and I am more mindful of those without it. Second, I appreciate my family and friends more. The support I received from my wife, kids, lawyers and friends was tremendous. In fact, my best friend John, who is a doctor, met the ambulance at the hospital and did not leave my side until I was able to go home. My treating eye doctor, Susan, has spent countless hours treating and helping me and has become a friend as a result. We go day-to-day knowing we have friends, but we appreciate them more when we need them the most.

TL: What’s the most important lesson your father has taught you?

Roach: From my earliest memory my dad has always taught me about integrity, hard work and the value of your word. We really did not have long talks about any of these specific traits because it is not about talking about them. My dad has simply taught me these qualities by the way he lived his life every day. As a judge, I am suspect of those who have to tell you about who they are or what they believe and put more stock in those who quietly teach others by the way they conduct their lives.

“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.