Lawyers who care to debate the finer points of automotive engineering with U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo of El Paso probably are not going to get much past him. In a former life, Montalvo was an engineer in Detroit who worked for Chrysler and later General Motors and who specialized in automotive crash test safety.

That job turned into a hobby. “I love tinkering on cars. Up until eight or nine years ago, I did my own oil changes and brake jobs and tune-ups. But I don’t do that anymore,” Montalvo says. As the demands of his present job increased, Montalvo left the amateur auto mechanics behind.

Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Montalvo earned his undergraduate degree in physics and math at the University of Puerto Rico in 1976. A year later, he received a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan, explaining that he earned the graduate degree so quickly because “I worked hard.”

As one would imagine, Montalvo’s job as a GM engineer made him a frequent expert witness in suits filed against automotive manufacturers. He says he eventually saw the courtroom as a better path to his true calling: public service. So he left GM and entered Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.

After graduating in 1985, Montalvo moved to San Antonio where he joined Groce Locke & Hebdon as a civil-defense litigator. In 1991, Montalvo left that firm for Ball & Weed. And in 1994, Montalvo made good on his goal of becoming a public servant when he ran for and won the 288th District Court bench in Bexar County. He served there until 2003 when then-President George W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

“Being a judge is a rare job in public service. The way I look at it, you’re never bigger than this job,” Montalvo says. “There’s always more to learn, there’s always new stuff, and you’re always studying more and learning more.”

Montalvo has a keen interest in foreign affairs, and he doesn’t just observe from his bench near the Texas-Mexico border. In 2007, Montalvo traveled to Lima, Peru, to moderate a panel on international law enforcement and judicial cooperation for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference.

“I’ve been to Colombia, too. I have developed an interest in international issues and how it affects the rule of law,” says Montalvo, who has been to that country several times to help train prosecutors, public defenders and judges.

“It’s humbling when you sit down with a judge from Colombia who is just as committed as you are, but she or he has to make do with minimal resources and still comes to work every day. If that doesn’t change your appreciation of being a judge, nothing does,” Montalvo says.

During his travels to Colombia, Montalvo met a judge whose father had been a high-ranking state jurist in Medellin who was assassinated during the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar. “And to see this guy follow in his father’s footsteps, that’s inspiring,” Montalvo says. The Colombian judge told Montalvo, “It’s us or them. I may not get to see the fruits of my labors, but my children will.”

“Now that’s commitment,” Montalvo says.

Over the past year, Montalvo says he disposed of more than 1,000 criminal and civil cases on his ever-growing docket. He believes his ability to handle his docket is due, in part, to his commitment to physical fitness. Montalvo works out regularly.

“One thing you’ll find here is that the pace of work is so relentless that stress management is really fundamental,” Montalvo says. “The best way to handle it is by being fit.”

Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who also works out regularly but thinks the only way he could dispose of 1,000 cases is with a paper shredder, e-mailed Montalvo some questions to ponder. What follows are his answers, edited for length and style.

Judge Frank Montalvo
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas
El Paso
Age: 53

Texas Lawyer: Tell us what the transition from advocate to judge was like for you?

Judge Frank Montalvo: The transition from advocate to judge was not as difficult for me as I initially imagined it might be. In private practice, I was a civil litigator. As a litigator, I always briefed my opponent’s argument thoroughly so I could anticipate what my opponent might bring to the table. This exercise, of course, assisted in my preparation of counterpoints and required me to evaluate the reasonableness of my arguments in light of sound, current law. I carried that practice to the bench. As a judge, I examine all sides of an issue, just as I did when I was a litigator. I undertake a similar evaluation of the arguments in light of good, current law. In a practical sense the preparation process has many similarities. On the other hand, the part of my job which relates to criminal law varies immensely from my work as an advocate. As a civil litigator, there was no work in the field of criminal law. That was probably the biggest change in my transition from advocate to judge.

TL: What’s the biggest difference between the state district bench and the U.S. district bench for you?

Montalvo: The biggest difference was the preponderance of criminal work over civil work. With respect to the perspective of the participants, the greatest difference I perceive is how much more seriously they take being in federal court. It is a fairly common occurrence to have defendants with a substantial criminal record, who have spent little or no time in jail, let alone prison. Such individuals and their families, when confronted with substantial prison time, have a difficult time adjusting to reality.

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?

Montalvo: In almost 15 years, I have not been “driv[en] absolutely insane.” However, lawyers who fail to listen when I rule or when I posit questions to them are irritating, as are lawyers who talk over me during a ruling or who continue to argue after I rule. Attentive listening is not a course at law school, but it certainly is a skill all successful advocates possess.

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

Montalvo: There are no peculiarities, simply time-honored rules that facilitate civil discourse and tend to decrease the level of stress at any given hearing. Respect — we owe it to each other. When the law clerk knocks and announces the start or resumption of a session, common courtesy suggests everyone should stop talking and stand respectfully. Decorum — I would not take the bench donning a Hawaiian beach shirt under my robe, nor would I accept inappropriate attire from anyone present in the courtroom.

TL: What aspect of your job makes you uncomfortable?

Montalvo: No one aspect of my job makes me uncomfortable. Sentencing is clearly the most challenging aspect of my work.

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

Montalvo: I recently presided over a criminal trial, for which the jury returned two counts of guilty and the remaining 12 counts of innocent. When my courtroom deputy polled the jury, it turns out the foreman had convinced the rest of the jury that if they were not unanimous as to finding the defendant guilty on a particular count, they must return a verdict of innocent on that count. After I instructed the jury to revisit the jury charge and sent them back to continue deliberations, they returned a verdict of guilty on all 14 counts. . . .

TL: Do you ever think you’ll see the day when the El Paso division’s caseload decreases instead of increases?

Montalvo: In three words: I do not.

TL: You’ve spent some time traveling in . . . South America speaking to judges about our system of justice. What have you learned from them?

Montalvo: I have spent some time traveling in South America. . . . I have been privileged to meet very dedicated judges, who labor under very difficult circumstances. Many of these judges have lost relatives and colleagues to terrorist acts, yet remain unintimidated and continue to diligently perform their duties. I believe the progress in Colombia is due in great part to the dedication of the judiciary there. Judges are the unsung heroes of democracy in that country.

TL: Are there some federal sentencing guidelines that you think are unfair, or do most of them seem to fit the crime?

Montalvo: Prior to Booker , I might have said a time or two that a particular sentence based upon the sentencing guidelines seemed out of sorts with the nature of the defendant and the crime he or she committed. However, the advisory nature of the sentencing guidelines has now allowed me to correct those instances where a sentence does not seem justified. All in all, though, I believe the [U.S. Sentencing] Commission has done a very good job of setting out the appropriate factors for consideration on sentencing.

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