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When Suzanne Covington graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1977, she could have taken a lucrative job in Houston. Instead, she set off to northern Arizona to work on a Native-American reservation as staff attorney of DNA-People’s Legal Services Inc. in Chinle and Tuba City, Ariz., followed by stints at Greater Boston Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas. Covington has no regrets about her decision, saying providing legal services to members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While in Arizona, she lived in a former Bureau of Indian Affairs building with no electricity and used propane to get heat. “It was a lot of fun,” she says. “It was very rewarding work.” Texas attorneys who have appeared before Covington, a judge in the 201st District Court in Austin, Texas, say her career decisions reveal her long commitment to serving the disadvantaged and her compassion for those pulled into the justice system. Those same qualities make her an outstanding judge, lawyers say. “She gives the judicial system a human face to my clients,” says Alice London, a partner in the Austin firm of Watson, Bishop, London, Galow. The judge has been involved in several cases in which London represented children who had been badly injured, she says. After a settlement was reached, Covington took the children back to her chambers to assure them that money would be available to help them and to offer them encouragement, London says. “I appreciate the compassion she shows for my clients,” London says. “She goes above and beyond the call of duty.” London adds that she didn’t vote for Covington in her first run for the bench, but she did the second time around. Covington, 51, received a bachelor of arts degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Texas in 1972. She began law school there in 1974. On Dec. 21 of that year, she gave birth to her son — the day after she took her last final exam for the semester, in criminal law. At the time, there were few women in law school and even fewer pregnant women, she says. Her son, Chris Montreuil, is just starting law school this semester at the University of Texas, sitting in the same chairs she did, in the same classrooms and even, in a few cases, with the same teachers. Covington got her law degree, with honors, in 1977, and left the next year for Arizona. In 1979, she went to Boston and three years later returned to Austin, Texas, where she was managing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas. In 1983, she became director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at her alma mater, a job she held for seven years until becoming a district court master hearing family law cases in the third judicial region. She was first elected to the bench in 1994 and took her position in the 201st District Court in January 1995. She ran unopposed in 1998 to win a second four-year term. Last year, Covington was the highest ranked civil trial judge in the Judicial Evaluation Poll of the Travis County Bar Association. TYPICAL, ATYPICAL DAYS Under the system used in Travis County, civil cases are parceled out each day to Covington and the other judges, who work until everything has been handled. The judges often don’t know how many cases they’ll have each day. As a judge in a high-tech county, Covington often gets cases involving cutting-edge issues, including trade secrets and employment matters. In addition, she hears appeals from state administrative agency cases. “That’s challenging,” she says. “I may hear a type of appeal I have not seen before. Some of the rates cases can be interesting.” Covington finds the judicial process itself intellectually stimulating. “I enjoy the trial of cases, the argument of cases,” Covington says. “I even enjoy the legal research and the decision-making process. Some of my colleagues are better at the administrative part. I enjoy trying cases.” The most difficult part of her job has always been presiding over the parent-child cases. Although the law in those cases is not difficult, the decisions are, she says. David W. Nelson describes Covington as an “extremely knowledgeable and competent judge” and says she understands the cases that come before her. “She’s fair and honest and conscientious,” says Nelson, a partner in Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Austin, Texas. He also praises her dedication to pro bono and community work. Covington works with groups that combat sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as serving with the Austin History Center Association. The judge also earns high marks for being prepared. Beverly Reeves, a partner in Vinson & Elkins in Austin, says, “She is extremely well prepared, and she’s a very smart judge. She will take the time to read the legal briefings you give her. She asks the right questions.” Recently, Reeves says, she was handling a series of complex commercial cases, and Covington encouraged the lawyers to go to a summary jury trial, an alternative dispute method designed to give litigants an idea of how their cases would fare at an actual trial. Going that route saved the cost of a trial, Reeves says. Another recent case involved a First Amendment issue. Travis County District Judge Margaret Cooper this spring issued a temporary restraining order stopping the Associated Press from using information it obtained under the state’s Public Information Act about a state-financed agricultural loan program. Permian Sea Shrimp and Seafood Ltd. of Imperial and the First National Bank of Monahans, which contended that the information included trade secrets and should be protected, requested the order. Covington overruled her colleague, saying there was no constitutional reason to keep public documents secret. Cooper did not return a call seeking comment. She got involved in another freedom-of-the-press case in the spring when she ordered the city of Georgetown to turn over a report to the Austin American-Statesman. The case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court. In another controversial case, Covington in 1999 issued a permanent injunction that stopped the South Texas College of Law in Houston from affiliating with Texas A&M University. She ruled that the affiliation was a violation of the Texas Constitution and the Texas Education Code. That case is on appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. One of the attorneys who represents Texas A&M says she disagrees with Covington’s ruling in the case, but says she’s a good judge. “I think she’s careful and reasoned in her rulings, and I think she really does strive to do the legal and right thing,” says Mary Schaerdel Dietz, a partner in the Austin office of Fulbright & Jaworski. Michael Shaunessy, a partner in Bickerstaff, Heath, Smiley, Pollan, Kever & McDaniel in Austin, echoes Dietz’s feelings: “She’s attentive and respectful of lawyers. Regardless of the outcome, she is a judge who I always feel is trying to do the right thing.” Not everyone is so accepting of her rulings. In July, Roberts Edward Hastings was indicted on charges that he threatened three judges, including Covington, who heard his divorce case. A trial date has not been set. His attorney, Gordon Karchmer, says, “Our position is he did not make any threats against Suzanne Covington or any judge.” Covington says she takes threats seriously, but puts them in perspective. “It’s part of public service,” she says. “You can’t become so concerned that you can’t do your job well. I try not to dwell on it.”

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