In 1976, John Ellisor had a different view of criminal defendants. Instead of hearing their cases and sentencing the guilty from the bench, he worked among them as a guard in the Ramsey Unit, a prison in Rosharon run by what was then known as the Texas Department of Corrections.
“I learned a lot about human nature there,” Ellisor, now judge of the 122nd District Court in Galveston County, says of his old job. He says he never had any problems with the inmates during his 18 months working at the prison unit.
“And after having left that job, I was glad to have had that experience and I was glad to have left,” says Ellisor, who graduated from Southwest Texas State University in 1974 with a law enforcement degree.
Ellisor then became a juvenile probation officer for Galveston County, a job he kept for eight years. “And then I got the bug to go to law school,” Ellisor says. “I can almost remember the day that the light bulb turned on. A young, new defense attorney named Roy Quintanilla came to Galveston and represented one of my probationers and did a really good job. And Roy took my client and myself out to lunch after the court procedures were over. He just told me about being a police officer and going to law school and I thought, ‘That’s something I could do.’ And less than two years after that lunch, I was in law school.”
Ellisor graduated from Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1985 with hopes of becoming an assistant district attorney in the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, but there weren’t any openings when he finished law school. So he joined a small general practice firm in Galveston where he worked for 13 years before leaving to become a solo practitioner.
“Over the years, practicing law, you see good and bad examples of what judges do,” Ellisor says. “And I kept telling myself, ‘If I had a chance, I’d do it this way.’ And again, in 1997 a light bulb came on and I felt like I should run.”
So Ellisor began his quest for the bench. The trouble was, Ellisor was a Republican and Galveston County is and has been a Democratic stronghold. He ran for a county court-at-law bench in 1998 and lost. Then he ran for a state district court bench in 2000 and lost again. But two years later, Republican voters in the county’s northern suburbs helped Ellisor win the 122nd District Court bench. He believes he is the first Republican to hold a state district court bench in Galveston County since Reconstruction.
There’s something else that is different about Ellisor, but not necessarily for a resident of Galveston County. And it has to do with a certain item in his chambers.
“I keep a surfboard here in the chambers and whenever it’s a slow day and there are waves I’ll go surfing,” he says, noting that bad weather in Galveston makes for the biggest waves. “I surfed the day before Ike and the waves were pretty powerful. I’ve been surfing since 1969, so I’ve surfed quite a few tropical depressions and hurricanes.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council e-mailed Ellisor some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge John Ellisor
122nd District Court
Texas Lawyer: What was the transition from advocate to judge like for you?
Judge John Ellisor: After 17 years of practice it was interesting to make the adjustment at first. I remember wanting to make objections or to prompt an attorney to make an obvious one. After awhile it was enjoyable not to have a dog in the fight and to observe different styles of trying cases.
TL: What Texas civil code is the most frustrating for you?
Ellisor: Certain provisions of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code are challenging to deal with.
TL: When Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
Ellisor: At first, the lack of power.
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?
Ellisor: My biggest pet peeve is incivility and the related vice of pettiness.
TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?
Ellisor: None really. I enjoy being in trial. However, the most difficult cases to preside over are those involving pro se litigants because of their lack of knowledge of rules and procedures.
TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?
Ellisor: I make an effort to begin proceedings on time and like lawyers to be early if possible. During voir dire and while a case is being tried, I expect attorneys not to invade the space of the jury panel or jury box.
TL: What is the best way a lawyer can get in your good graces?
Ellisor: Advance notice of scheduling changes. Making a good-faith effort to resolve discovery disputes without court intervention. Being courteous to court staff, other attorneys, litigants and the court.
TL: What did you learn during your time as a prison guard and a probation officer that has served you well as a judge?
Ellisor: From a practical standpoint, I think knowing firsthand about punishment options and what a defendant may be facing on probation or in prison has been helpful.
TL: Tell us about the best wave you ever surfed.
Ellisor: Every time I am able to be out in the water and ride a wave is the best one, although surfing the north shore of Oahu has certainly been the most exhilarating.
TL: What is the toughest ruling you ever had to make?
Ellisor: To date, a multiparty case tried to the court involving numerous causes of action, including allegations of violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.