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Phillip Zeigler has a history in Gatesville. It’s where his father served as a judge. Zeigler remembers running to the courthouse to get a quarter from his dad so he could go to the five-and-dime to buy candy. And he eventually opened his own law office in town. Now Zeigler serves as a Gatesville judge, sitting on the 52nd District Court bench. He lives less than three blocks from the historic courthouse where he presides mostly over criminal cases. When the weather is nice, mostly in the spring, he walks to work. “It’s a comfortable feeling that you’re very much at home,” Zeigler says of working in his hometown. So it’s fitting that the father of two became the de facto historian of the city’s past more than six years ago when Coryell County officials decided to refurbish the courthouse and asked the judge to take a leadership role. Built in 1898 for about $74,000, county officials invested nearly $1.5 million to restore the building in time for its centennial celebration. During the restoration, from 1997-1998, Zeigler became a student of not only what took place in the building but also its design. On occasion, he relays the courthouse’s history to squirming third-grade students who come for a tour. During the restoration, crews replaced two statues, one representing liberty and the other representing justice, as well as an eagle at the top of the dome. The need to do that was found in the annals of Gatesville’s history. Zeigler, 59, says saloons surrounded the courthouse square in the early days and rowdy cowboys would fall out into the street and shoot at the statues. “The eagle was shot full of holes,” he says. The original liberty and justice statues were so battered that a huge storm finally ripped them off the courthouse during the World War I era, he says. But the most significant change to the courthouse was the refurbishing project that took place inside. When originally constructed, what is now the district courtroom had a balcony level for observers. The high ceiling was covered and lowered when officials made modifications in the 1950s, giving the room a stuffy, vault-like feel. “It was like practicing law in a basement,” says Zeigler. Now, Gatesville solo Sandy Gately says, stepping into the district courtroom is like stepping onto the set of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “It’s absolutely stunning,” she says. “It captures everything you’ve seen in classic courtroom scenes.” Years ago, “people would bring a sack lunch, sit in the balcony and watch the attorneys work,” Zeigler says. “That was before radio, much less television, became a staple in people’s lives.” The courtroom was restored to expose the balcony, though it is not used today for observers. Then again, not as many people come to the courthouse for entertainment purposes these days, Zeigler says. One of the more infamous trials to take place in the Coryell County Courthouse has all the ingredients of a “Law & Order” episode. Zeigler says in 1909, a local man was on trial charged with seduction � a state statute at the time and a felony offense. A local woman ended up pregnant after spending an evening with the local man, Zeigler recounts. She claimed that the man had given her chocolates injected with drugs and took advantage of her when they went to a dance in the nearby town of Ireland. The woman was sent to a home for unwed mothers in Fort Worth to have the baby but returned to Gatesville in time for the man’s trial. At the time, a large glass window allowed people in the courthouse hallway to view what was taking place in the courtroom. The woman stood by the window where she had a clear view of Hanes’ back, raised her arm and shot him. He and two courtroom attendants were killed, Zeigler says. A year later, the woman was inside the same courtroom facing murder charges. A jury acquitted her because they questioned her mental state. The case was unusual, but so was having a female defendant in court on murder charges, Zeigler says. Women in those early years did not come to the courthouse, the judge notes, unless they were witnesses. The judge says his chamber was once used as the ladies’ witness waiting room, where women would assemble until they were called to the stand. “It was the only room with a private bathroom,” Zeigler says. Thankfully, Zeigler has not witnessed such drama in his courtroom since taking the bench in 1991. The Pawnshop When he was young, becoming a lawyer wasn’t on Zeigler’s radar screen. He earned his undergraduate degree in economics from Texas Tech University in 1967, then enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law because “it seemed interesting.” The Vietnam War was raging. So Zeigler left law school to join the U.S. Navy Reserves. He spent his time on a ship docked in San Pedro, Calif., then returned to Austin where he received his J.D. in 1972. Zeigler moved to Houston after law school where he had a solo practice for three years. His father, who had started a title company after he leaving the bench, was ready to retire. Zeigler returned home to Gatesville in 1975 and got married. “I took over running [the title company] and had a solo law practice as well,” Zeigler says. Zeigler’s wife, in the meantime, went to law school, since there was not much work available for an MBA in Gatesville, he says. In 1983, Zeigler’s wife, Mary Jane, was sworn in as an attorney and Zeigler was sworn in as the Coryell DA. Then-Gov. Mark White appointed Zeigler to the position. “I walked out the backdoor [of the title company], and she walked in the front door,” he says, referring to his wife assuming the leadership role at the title company. As DA, Zeigler’s office was in the courthouse. At the time, he was the only prosecutor in town; an investigator and a secretary worked with him. His investigator would look out one of the top-floor windows to the pawnshop across the street, Zeigler recalls. Each time someone would take something inside the pawnshop, the investigator would check it out. “We solved a lot of robberies that way,” says Zeigler, who served as the Coryell County district attorney from 1983 to 1991. Making the move from DA to district judge was an interesting transition, Zeigler says. “I went from being an advocate to having clear limitations,” he says. Attorneys who appear before Zeigler say he is a student of the law and fair. “When you see him for the first time you think of him as a wise grandpa figure,” says Craig Carlson, a partner in Killeen’s Smith & Carlson. “He’s very wise. “ Bobby Dale Barina, a Killeen solo, says Zeigler is always prepared. But, Barina says, Zeigler can take some time to come to a decision. “I think he’s the slowest judge in Central Texas,” he says. “That can be a good thing because he takes so much time on a case.” Zeigler, a Democrat, says he enjoys being a judge and will stay on the bench as long as he can. He is up for re-election this year but has no opponent. He has run for the bench unopposed since then-Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to the bench in 1991. “There’s not a whole lot to do in Gatesville,” he says. “I haven’t figured out what I would do if I weren’t (a judge.)” Do’s and Don’ts Do be on time. Zeigler runs a tight docket and expects attorneys to be there on time. Don’t be surprised if you have to wait, especially if you are scheduled to appear in the afternoon. One attorney says Zeigler is the slowest judge he’s ever appeared before but he makes thoughtful rulings. Do be prepared. Zeigler likes to keep things moving. Don’t be surprised if the judge asks your client a question. It is common for Zeigler to ask questions (of the parties involved in the case before him. He’s been known to speak directly to a client. Source: seven attorneys who have appeared before Zeigler

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