Anyone who shows up in Rusty Ladd’s courtroom as he takes the bench in the morning will be asked to participate in a ritual that Texas schoolchildren perform every day. But he hopes people will remember why he asks them to place their hands over their hearts.
“We say the Pledge of Allegiance every day, whether it’s two people or 20,” Ladd says. “I walk in the door, and I don’t require participation but certainly invite everybody to join in. It’s just to remind everyone of the privileges and duties and rights and responsibilities we all have.”
Ladd started the tradition in December 1999, soon after he was appointed to Lubbock County Court-at-Law No. 1 by the Commissioners Court. He got the idea from Stephen Ables, presiding judge of the 6th Administrative Judicial Region, who for many years has taught the new judge school for the Texas Center for the Judiciary.
“At baby judges’ school he said, ‘You need to do something that is a tradition that is yours and your court can be marked by.’ And for example, he said, ‘Saying the pledge,’ ” Ladd says of Ables. “ And you can say I was inspired by that.”
A native of West Texas, Ladd did not travel a traditional path to the bench. He says it took him five years to earn his biblical studies degree from Lubbock Christian University in 1975 because he enjoyed college life a little too much.
“I had a good time, yeah. I wouldn’t want to go back there, but I had a good time,” Ladd says. “One of the professors when I graduated looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You don’t deserve this.’ And if I had any guts I would have told her, ‘You’re right.’ “
Instead of going to law school after graduation, Ladd headed off to sunny Southern California with his wife. He needed a job, so he became a police officer in South Pasadena and in Pomona. But Ladd yearned for home, so he moved back and became a Lubbock police officer.
With Texas Tech University School of Law in his backyard, Ladd eventually quit the police force to become a lawyer, something he’d wanted to do since reading “My Life In Court” by Louis Nizer when he was a kid.
“I had three kids and a mortgage. Those were some hard years,” Ladd says of his time in law school. “We borrowed a lot of money, and my wife is a very resolute person. She raised the kids and kept the ends meeting on what little money we could make. I’m still paying back my Sallie Mae money for law school.”
After graduating from Tech in 1988, Ladd worked for Dallas’ Geary, Stahl & Spencer for about a year as an associate but decided civil law wasn’t for him. So he went back to West Texas and worked as a prosecutor in Potter, Hale and Lubbock counties before he was appointed to the court, which handles criminal law and some family law matters.
A couple of nights a month, Ladd goes to The Prayer Vigil, a homeless shelter run by two Lubbock churches: The Carpenter’s Church and The Broadway Church of Christ. Ladd is an elder at the Broadway Church of Christ. Ladd checks in the homeless and leads them in a devotional. “I get a sleeping mat and crash with the homeless guys,” Ladd says.
“I don’t care how much money you make or how much education you have, there is an endearing commonality you have with every person. It’s the fellowship of man,” Ladd says. “When you stretch out with 30 other guys, it really does remind you of the obligations you have and the duties you have.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council e-mailed Ladd some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Rusty Ladd
Lubbock County Court-at-Law No. 1
Appointed to the bench: 1999
Texas Lawyer: Tell us what a lawyer should never, ever do in your courtroom.
Judge Rusty Ladd: Personally attack opposing counsel or the court; treat witnesses, court staff or anyone else in court rudely.
TL: Besides the voluntary Pledge of Allegiance, are there any other formalities lawyers should know about in your courtroom?
Ladd: A lawyer who shows up without a tie should not be concerned, as I have several very colorful ties in my closet that are available.
TL: Are there any common pitfalls you see that are made by lawyers when they present plea bargains to you for consideration?
Ladd: The most common pitfall is that lawyers often neglect to talk to their clients about mandatory driver’s license suspensions. When I bring up the subject, the client is usually unpleasantly surprised. Defense counsel often seem unaware of the financial status of their clients. I see obviously poor, even indigent, defendants obligating themselves for court costs, fines and probation fees that would impoverish a middle-class family when it could have been pled to a time-served jail sentence. Sometimes that cannot be helped, I suppose, but I get the impression that the issue often is never addressed.
TL: Do you have any rules for how attorneys should handle the examination of witnesses during a trial?
Ladd: Direct and cross-examinations are the heart and soul of a trial, and I have no desire to try to control lawyers in doing this part of their job. Besides the “don’t be rude” rule, the only rule I have is that I limit any re-examination to the scope of the previous examination.
TL: In your opinion, what kind of case is best suited for a trial by court instead of a trial by jury?
Ladd: I believe child custody cases are best suited for bench trial, only because bench trials tend to limit the inflammatory pitch, usually reserved for jury trials, that can be so destructive to post-divorce parent-child relationships.
TL: What can a lawyer do to get on your good side?
Ladd: Do his or her job professionally and with respect for an adversary, and refrain from trying to get on my good side.
TL: Let’s say a lawyer believes you’ve made a mistake in a ruling. What’s the best way for an attorney to object without offending you?
TL: What specifically about your job keeps you up at night?
Ladd: Nothing. I go for a run or ride my bike, say my prayers and let it go.
TL: Is there anything about your former profession as a police officer that helps you as a criminal court judge?
Ladd: I believe my law enforcement career helps immensely as a criminal court judge. The insight in evaluating police officer testimony (when that is my task and not the jury’s); the sensitivity regarding an officer’s scheduling; the vast difference between reasonable suspicion, probable cause and beyond reasonable doubt; [and] the basic knowledge of how investigations work and who is basically responsible for what part of an investigation are all part [of] how having been an officer helps me in my current job.
TL: What’s the best way to help the homeless?
Ladd: 1. Read the book “Same Kind of Different as Me” written about the homeless and some other marvelous people in Tarrant County. 2. Be aware of what your community is doing, and more importantly, not doing, regarding your homeless population. . . . 3. Go spend a night at a homeless shelter. It is kind of like camping out, only different.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.