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Retirement isn’t always easy, especially when a job is more than a job. That’s the situation facing Jack Pierce, who finds himself a bit at loose ends after ending a 37-year tenure as a district judge in Nacogdoches County, Texas. Pierce didn’t simply delight in his job as judge; he really loved being the only district judge in the county. And now, in retirement, life isn’t quite like Pierce had planned when he decided against seeking re-election to a 10th term of office. His plan to work as a visiting judge and do mediations was sent awry by a strange illness that turned out to be arsenic poisoning. Texas Rangers and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating. Pierce says he’s feeling better, but he hasn’t regained enough strength to work since he stepped off the bench at the end of 2000. It’s distressing to Pierce, who took the bench in 1963 and was the longest-sitting district judge in Texas at the end of his term. Pierce stepped down because he couldn’t finish a new term before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75, but expected to be wielding a gavel again as a visiting judge in January. “I’m in no shape at this time. I’m still having a great difficulty with balance now, but I plan to be a visiting judge very soon,” Pierce says. He isn’t angry that state law forced him into retirement. “It has a good old purpose �- it’s to keep dotty old men from serving on the bench,” he says. But Pierce, who fended off election challenges in 1992 and 1996, would have had an election opponent in 2000. A number of lawyers who practiced before Pierce say he was a legal scholar who enforced civility and decorum in the courtroom and gave all sides a fair chance to argue their points. Others suggest his retirement was overdue, pointing to a clogged docket and the need for some fresh blood on the bench. Nacogdoches lawyer Giles Rusk says he ran against Pierce in 1992 and 1996 for a number of reasons, including what he considered inefficiency in court operations. “I also considered it a situation where there were double standards from the court that I thought were inconsistent with justice,” says Rusk, a solo; he declines to elaborate. “Judge Pierce was a very well-read judge and beyond that I don’t wish to comment,” he says. Jay Jackson is another Nacogdoches County lawyer who says Pierce should have moved to senior status some years ago: “He had the job without opposition for so long that a lot of us believe that he felt it was his by right, divine right. But what can I say? That’s what the people in Nacogdoches wanted.” Rusk and four lawyers who supported him in elections say they are reluctant to publicly criticize Pierce’s performance on the bench because of his current health concerns. “It’s a strange and bizarre situation and apparently a very serious one to his health. I do not have any personal quarrel with Judge Pierce on a personal basis arising from any particular case,” Rusk says. “I think everyone else here feels empathy for him at this time.” ARSENIC POISONING While Pierce was winding up work on his docket in December 2000, he was supervising renovations on his new storefront office in a circa 1900 building two blocks from the courthouse. But he hasn’t been able to put the spiffy new office to use because of his illness. Pierce was treated in January at a hospital in Dallas for arsenic poisoning, but the judge hadn’t been feeling well for some time before elevated levels of arsenic were found in his system. The Texas Rangers and FBI agents are investigating whether there’s any foul play involved, but Pierce says he has no reason to suspect any connection between his service on the bench and any criminal attempts to poison him. Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, says the police investigation, which began in mid-January, is ongoing and active. Pierce, a Nacogdoches native, is the kind of small-town public figure who is recognized and greeted by townspeople as he walks the downtown sidewalks of the East Texas town. A widower, he says he spends a lot of his spare time going to functions around town. He is easily recognizable by his trademark bow tie. “I’ve never seen him in the courtroom without his bow tie. In fact, I’ve seen him very few times without his bow tie anywhere,” says Nacogdoches lawyer William Guidry, a longtime friend of Pierce. Pierce grew up in Nacogdoches and says he spent his spare time hanging out at the courthouse, listening to trials. After graduating from Baylor University School of Law in 1958, he returned to Nacogdoches and did criminal defense and civil trial work. In 1963, when Pierce was 36 years old and John F. Kennedy was president, Gov. John Connally appointed him to the 145th district court bench. Pierce says he made a number of improvements to the administration of justice in Nacogdoches County over the years, including establishment of a law library at the courthouse. Over time, he built his reputation in East Texas as a judge who kept up with the law. Even lawyers who supported Rusk acknowledge that Pierce’s knowledge of the law made them better lawyers. “He would respect you if you knew the law as well as he did, but if you didn’t, he’d run over you — and chuckle about it,” says Jackson, a solo in Garrison. Tim James, a former district attorney in Nacogdoches County, says Pierce could “destroy” an unprepared lawyer. “In his prime, which was probably through the ’80s until about 1994, somewhere in there, you couldn’t touch him, [but] he aged and sometimes he’d miss a step or two. In the last while, he probably missed a few calls, but if you average it out, he’s one of the smartest people you could ever meet,” says James, who is in private practice in Nacogdoches since January after two terms as DA. Pierce didn’t have a written list of rules of procedure for his court. He says lawyers who practice in the 145th district understood the rules of decorum he enforced, such as a dress code for lawyers — suit jackets and ties — and “church-going clothes” for jurors. “If you don’t have a structured court, you don’t have an effective court,” Pierce says. “I used to tell them all I wouldn’t want a doctor [to] operate on me in overalls.” Pierce says he can only recall details of a single incident when he was pushed to hold a lawyer in contempt. It was Jackson, who concedes he was “terribly in contempt of court” on that day back in the mid-1980s. “I thought I was being run over by the other side, by the judge. I just wasn’t going to let it happen and talked myself into $500 worth of contempt,” recalls Jackson, who says Pierce let him work off the fine with several court appointments. Out-of-town lawyers sometimes didn’t understand what Pierce expected in the way of behavior. Guidry, a solo who practiced before Pierce for 32 years, says he recalls one time when a lawyer leaped over the rail separating the court arena from the public arena. Guidry says Pierce very politely invited the lawyer to put his hand on the rail, leap back out and walk in through the gate. Jackson recalls a time when a lawyer was chastised for putting his foot, clad in an alligator-skin boot, up on a chair when questioning potential jurors. James says Pierce won’t allow defendants to address him, and they can’t stand and enter a plea with their shirttails untucked. He also doesn’t allow cussing in the courtroom; James recalls one lecture after a lawyer used the word “screwed.” Pierce also didn’t allow lawyers to sit in the jury box during voir dire or hearings, a common practice in other courtrooms. “If a lawyer did, the judge would stop the trial and say ‘Mr. Bailiff, I see the gentleman from out of town is sitting in the jury box,’ ” James recalls. Pierce made no effort to mask the fact he is a strong Baptist. He is known for lecturing juveniles who appeared before him in court. Even friends of Pierce, like Guidry, admit they didn’t particularly enjoy sitting through the judge’s lectures because they had heard the spiel so many times over the years. Guidry rattles off an example: “Young man or young lady, don’t you see that breaking into a schoolhouse at night was wrong? And don’t you see that [it] would lead to other things? Your parents are unhappy. Don’t you want to make your parents proud?” They weren’t short lectures, according to Jackson. “I’ve heard him go on for 20, 30, 40 minutes with the attorney, the defendant and the defendant’s parents standing there, shifting from foot to foot, while Judge Pierce was talking about what the child should be doing.” DOCKET AN ISSUE The size of Pierce’s docket became an issue in 1992, when he faced his first election challenge from Rusk, a Republican. Pierce says the campaign rhetoric about efficiency prompted him to offer litigants a guaranteed trial setting within 90 days. “Occasionally you had somebody asking for it, bluffing, and they found out reality,” he says. According to statistics maintained by the Office of Court Administration, a total of 2,201 civil, criminal and juvenile cases were pending on Aug. 31, 1991, in the 145th district, a number well above the average of 1,728 pending cases per district judge in the state. A year later, as Pierce was facing his first election challenge, the total pending docket dropped to 1,639 total cases, which was below the statewide average of 1,761. Since then, the docket in the 145th has been slightly above or slightly below average. But Pierce has made extensive use of visiting judges for the last decade, and jurisdiction for family law matters was shifted to the county court-at-law. In the year ending Aug. 31, 2000, 1,904 cases were pending in the 145th, compared to 1,887 on average statewide. Pierce, citing his willingness to give any lawyer a trial setting within 90 days, discounts complaints from lawyers about the docket. But lawyers who complained of inefficiency in the 145th district also say the county is in dire need of a second court. State Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, plans to introduce a bill during the current session of the Texas Legislature establishing another court in the county, his spokesman, Jason Johnson, says. Martha Sullivan, president of the Nacogdoches County Bar Association, says the bar has been trying since 1988 to get a second court. Sullivan, who teaches criminal justice at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, says it’s no secret Pierce didn’t want a second court. The new judge, Campbell Cox, who defeated Rusk in the primary, says the needs/cost analysis should be done by the Nacogdoches County Commissioners Court. “There was no question that Judge Pierce thought no need for a second court. Every lawyer in town knows that, and I believe he was in good faith believing that, and in that he was wrong,” says criminal defense attorney John R. Heath. “I think the evidence of that is as soon as he went out of office, the whole bar unanimously, and the whole commissioners court unanimously, voted to support a second court.” Pierce says he never publicly opposed creation of a second court. He says it would be “wonderful” to have a second court, but he doesn’t believe the county, which is responsible for the facilities, and the state, which pays the judge’s salary, can afford it. HIGH-PROFILE CASE Pierce’s most recent high-profile trial was the capital-murder trial of Khristian Oliver, who received the death penalty after a trial in the summer of 1999. Oliver was accused of murdering a 64-year-old resident of rural Nacogdoches County who came home unexpectedly one night in March 1998 to find his home being burglarized. Oliver was found guilty and received the death penalty. His trial attorney, Michael DeGeurin, a partner in Foreman, DeGeurin, Nugent & Gerger of Houston, is handling Oliver’s appeal. In a brief filed in January to the Court of Criminal Appeals, DeGeurin cites 28 points of error, including Pierce’s failure to conduct voir dire questioning designed to uncover possible racial bias. (Oliver is African-American; the murder victim was white.) DeGeurin also says Pierce erred when denying his motion for a new trial made on the grounds that jurors may have been influenced by Bibles brought into the jury room during their deliberations on punishment. “The jury’s use of an authoritative religious text like the Bible, which may undermine jurors’ considerations of mercy in a death penalty case, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” DeGeurin wrote. DeGeurin believes he will get Oliver’s conviction overturned, but James, the DA in 1999, says none of the issues in the appeal cause him concern. Because the appeal is pending, DeGeurin declines to discuss Pierce’s rulings. But he says that during the eight-week trial he grew to like Pierce and respect his ability to stay aloof after years of working as the only judge in a small town. “He always in the 37 years did what he thought was right. His moral bar was personally set above the normal man,” DeGeurin says. “Picture a person in his district for 37 years trying cases, mainly with the same lawyers and never playing favorites, and somehow keeping that small bar of his way up high with a lot of temptations along the way.” JUSTICE, ACCORDING TO JUDGE JACK PIERCE On no-show jurors: “If they don’t come, we don’t send the sheriff. We give them a call, and they come down.” On Rambo lawyers: “We don’t have any here as such, true Rambo, but we have a few who get rambunctious. I let them know we run a strict court.” On letters of apology and other forms of creative sentencing: “I think it’s ridiculous.” On cameras in the courtroom: “There are occasions for cameras �- I’ve never had one. Generally they are not conductive to the quality of justice.” On class actions: “I don’t think too much of them. Too many of them are promotional deals. You see this ad in the paper [saying] ‘If you’ve got leaky pipes, call.’ “

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