Sometimes, a seemingly unimportant decision changes everything about a person’s life. For U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of the Western District of Texas, his choice to take a noontime nap on Aug. 1, 1966, likely is the reason he is alive today.
Yeakel — then an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin — was leaving a business economics class that day when he decided against walking across the campus’ main mall to the Harry Ransom Library to work on a research paper. The previous night, Yeakel had been up late at an engagement party held in his and his fiancee’s honor.
On Aug. 1, a heavily armed Charles Whitman was perched on the 28th-floor observation deck of the university tower, and at noon he began shooting. Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 32 others before an Austin police officer shot and killed him.
“Any other day I would have been walking across that mall at noon,” Yeakel says. He took three steps toward the mall, decided he was too tired, turned the other direction and went home to sleep. “Those eerie little things really get to you.”
Yeakel graduated with a degree in government that summer and got married six days after picking up his diploma. Originally, he had planned to enter graduate school to earn a master’s degree in business administration. But Yeakel says he lacked a few undergraduate hours needed to enter the program. “I decided to give law school a look, and the rest is history,” says Yeakel, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1969.
Yeakel, who was born in Oklahoma City, was one of the few UT law grads to stay in Austin after graduation; in those days law jobs in the capital were scarce. He worked at a small firm for five years, then he struck out on his own to form Giles & Yeakel. That firm merged with Clark Thomas & Winters in 1990, and Yeakel became a partner. Yeakel served on Austin’s 3rd Court of Appeals — first as chief justice, then as associate justice — from 1998 to 2003.
In 2003, then-President George W. Bush appointed Yeakel to the U.S. District Court bench in Austin.
Yeakel says he first met Bush in the late 1980s when Yeakel helped with George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
Yeakel served as chairman of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, a position to which then-Gov. Bill Clements appointed him in 1989, and later interactedwith George W. Bush as governor. “I would, from time to time, need to speak with him or his staff about commission business,” Yeakel says. “So I put in for the job at the 3rd Court and interviewed with Cliff Johnson,” who was Bush’s appointments director.
Those interactions with Bush served Yeakel well.
“You never know what in your background leads to good fortune. I’ve always thought that 95 percent of what happens to you is being in the right place at the right time,” Yeakel says. “I don’t know what went into that calculus, but I’m grateful for it.”
When Yeakel is not on the bench, he usually can be found at UT sporting events. Yeakel has season tickets to UT football and baseball games. He also holds season tickets to UT basketball games because “basketball is what you do between baseball and football.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, a UT class of 1989 graduate, shares Yeakel’s belief that the 2006 Rose Bowl — in which UT defeated the University of Southern California by a score of 41-to-38 — was the greatest football game ever played. He e-mailed Yeakel some questions and asked him some follow-up questions over the telephone. Here are Yeakel’s answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Lee Yeakel
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas
Appointed to the federal bench: 2003
Texas Lawyer: Tell us what it was like transitioning from a state appellate court bench to a U.S. district court bench; those two jobs couldn’t have much in common.
Judge Lee Yeakel: They don’t have much in common, but it was easier than one might think. Having been on an appellate court, it gave me an appreciation for how appellate courts review trial court judgments and records, and it worked not much differently in the federal system than it did in the state system. And so I have found that it’s been quite helpful to me to at least have an understanding of the way the appellate court is going to review my work when I’m actually performing that work on the trial bench.
TL: So what do you think is easier, deciding a Public Utilities Commission rate case appeal like you heard on the 3rd Court or a patent infringement case?
Yeakel: [A] public utilities rate case, hands down. A utility rate case doesn’t have as many issues, and you hear one oral argument after you’ve read the briefs. In a patent infringement case, the hearings go on incessantly before you finally get to a trial. As far as complexity, they’re not much different. But procedurally it takes a lot more time to deal with a patent infringement case than a PUC rate case.
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?
Yeakel: Well, not being prepared, showing up late for an argument or arguing with each other kind of covers the waterfront. But I would say it’s out-of-town lawyers who ignore the advice that the local counsel is giving them. I have seen lawyers with good local counsel proceed to go right down the list of pushing every one of my hot buttons as if they have prepared to when I know the local counsel has warned them about those things — not getting directly to the point, not answering questions directly. If I ask a question I want an answer to that question, not the one the lawyer wants to answer.
TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?
Yeakel: Probably the one thing they should be aware of is I don’t believe in one size fits all. Therefore, instead of posted courtroom rules, I have an early pretrial conference in every case where we fashion a pretrial or scheduling order that is workable for the lawyers based on the facts and circumstances of the individual case.
TL: What aspect of your job makes you uncomfortable?
Yeakel: The hardest and most unpleasant part of my job is sentencing. I think that’s probably true about everybody that sits in this position. It is really difficult to try to come up to speed on everything on every defendant and reach a fair and just sentence. There are just so many factors that go into it, and it defies a logical calculus. Part of the problem is you’re dealing with individual lives and the lives of the individual’s families. Everything you do affects more than just the defendant you have in front of you.
TL: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought: “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”
Yeakel: I guess that’s related to my answer to the last question. Fairly early on, I had a defendant at a sentencing hearing fall to his knees in front of the bench, raise his hands in prayer and pray that he would get a lenient sentence. I realize all of the stories that get told about federal judges that think they’re God. But I really never thought an incident like that would occur. I let him say what he wanted to say, and I asked him to stand up, and I did the best that I could with the information I had in front of me.
TL: What kind of case is your favorite kind of case to hear and why?
Yeakel: Any case, civil or criminal, where the lawyers are well prepared, know their case and don’t waste either the court’s or the jury’s time with unimportant and insignificant bantering. In other words, the joy of this job is the time I spend presiding over cases. And the true joy is presiding over a well-tried case.
TL: Do lawyers who attended Texas A&M — your alma mater’s bitter rival — need to keep that fact a secret from you?
Yeakel: Well, the good news is that none of them went to Texas A&M for law school. So at least they’ve got another degree out there, and many of them went to the University of Texas law school. I do have burnt orange carpet in my chambers. And I once had a lawyer tell me that he’d prefer all conferences be held in the courtroom because he was very uncomfortable standing on that carpet.
TL: What federal statute is the most confounding one for you to apply?
Yeakel: All statutes are the product of some nature of compromise in the Congress. And so they’re not as black and white as a lot of people would think. But right now I’d have to say that two that I’ve wrestled with — that I have difficulty wading through — are the amendments to the Bankruptcy Code because there are tremendous gaps and paragraphs that don’t quite close up. Another is the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because some years ago the Supreme Court declared a portion of it unconstitutional, which created a real hole in the application of the statute. And the Congress has not acted to revise it to fill that hole.
TL: Since you may have set a record for a UT student who never left Austin, what would have to happen before you left your beloved city?
Yeakel: I’m sure there is some nature of scenario out there, but I don’t know what it would be.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.