For George Gallagher, an acceptance letter he received from St. Mary’s School of Law in 1979 changed the course of his life.

Put more bluntly, according to Gallagher: “If I didn’t get into law school, I wouldn’t have done diddly squat with the rest of my life.”

Gallagher had talents as a student, but some of the basic subjects he took in school confounded him, the Fort Worth native says.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a United States senator. The bottom line was I wasn’t any good at math or science, and English just killed me. But I could read,” Gallagher says. “So I got into political science because I could read and debate.”

When he graduated from Texas A&M University in 1979 with a political science degree, he looked up in the audience at the graduation ceremony and saw that one of his family members was in tears.

“I had not been accepted into law school. And as I walk across the stage, I look up and see my mother, and she’s crying. And I asked her later if she was crying because I got my degree,” Gallagher says. “She said she was crying because she thought: ‘What the hell is he going to do with a political science degree?’ “

Not to worry. Gallagher was accepted into St. Mary’s. While there, Gallagher met some fellow students who would end up being influential criminal lawyers in Fort Worth, such asMark G. Daniel, now a prominent Fort Worth criminal defense attorney. When he got a summer internship with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office while at St. Mary’s, he was assigned to work with another intern, Richard Roper, who later became the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas and is now a partner in Thompson & Knight in Dallas. He says, 27 years later, those friendships have still endured.

Gallagher received his law degree in 1982 and began working as an assistant Tarrant County district attorney. He stayed at that office until 1986, when he left for a criminal-defense practice in Fort Worth with what was then Hill, Beatty, Butcher & Gallagher.

But Gallagher still dipped his foot into the prosecution waters, as he occasionally was asked to be a special prosecutor when the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office recused itself from a case.

Most notably, Gallagher was the special prosecutor who persuaded a jury to convict Warren Horinek for murder in 1996. Horinek is a former Fort Worth police officer who killed his wife, Bonnie Arnett Horinek, a lawyer in the Fort Worth office of Jackson Walker. The DA’s office recused itself from the case because it originally had declined to seek a murder indictment against Horinek, but Horinek was later indicted through a direct appeal to the grand jury by one of Bonnie Horinek’s close friends, Mike Ware, a former Fort Worth criminal-defense attorney who is now an assistant Dallas County district attorney [See "Defender Turns Accuser in Attorney Murder Case," Texas Lawyer, April 15, 1996, page 9.]

In 2000, after the Texas Legislature created the 396th District Court, several friends encouraged Gallagher to apply for an appointment to the new bench from then-Gov. George W. Bush.

“My response was ‘Why? I’ve got a great practice,’ ” Gallagher says. “ But they said ‘You’d make a great judge.’ “

During his interview with Bush’s appointment office, he learned that the Bush staffer conducting the interview had dated his legal secretary’s daughter.

“My 30-minute interview turned into an hour and a half,” Gallagher says. “It’s just a small world.”

Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who used to work in Tarrant County and still can’t enter the city limits of Fort Worth without running into someone he knows, e-mailed Gallagher some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.

Judge George Gallagher
396th District Court
Fort Worth
Appointed to the Bench: 2000
Age: 52

Texas Lawyer: What was the transition from advocate to judge like for you?

Judge George Gallagher: The transition from advocate to judge was difficult. I miss being an advocate. And the most difficult thing was not knowing anything about the facts of the case. As an advocate, especially in criminal cases, you know what the other side has. But a judge has no idea what the facts are in a case. So when the lawyers start arguing about whether or not potential evidence is going to be admitted, I have to conference with them to find out what the alleged facts are in the case.

TL: What part of the Texas criminal codes are the most frustrating for you?

Gallagher: The parts of the criminal codes that are continually increasing punishment on crimes to make them felonies that used to be misdemeanors — evading arrest, prostitution, etc. Our prison system is full enough. If there is one prison bed available, I’d rather have a murderer or a sexual assault defendant in that bed rather than a prostitute.

TL: Tell us something about your childhood that you’ve never forgotten and is relevant to your current job.

Gallagher: I was six years old when President Kennedy was assassinated, and I remember watching the funeral and how it affected our country. I watched how our leaders came together for a while after his death. Politics can be set aside for the good of the people.

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?

Gallagher: It drives me insane when lawyers, on docket day, when I have 100 cases set, will turn in the paperwork to do a plea and then they disappear to go to another court. Finish your business in one court, and then go to another.

TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?

Gallagher: My least favorite case to hear is sexual cases involving young children. I think the answer speaks for itself as to why.

TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?

Gallagher: I very much try to be lawyer friendly. I tell my staff to always take into account the lawyers and their time. But if they are in trial, I insist on being punctual and starting on time. I don’t like for a jury to be waiting.

TL: What is the best way a lawyer can get in your good graces?

Gallagher: Don’t fall out of my good graces. Take care of business.

TL: Tell us about a moment in your courtroom where you thought, “Wow, I never thought I’d ever see that happen.”

Gallagher: We had received a verdict, and the sister of the defendant tried to attack the victim of the offense who was sitting in the courtroom. The prosecutor jumped the rail and tackled the attacker. It was fun to watch from the bench.

TL: What is the toughest ruling you ever had to make?

Gallagher: We had a defendant who had two capital murder cases. The state did not seek death but wanted to try him individually and stack the sentences. But they also wanted to admit the evidence from each case in each trial. I didn’t think this was proper, but the state convinced me to do so. I admitted the evidence, and the cases were affirmed on appeal.

TL: You live in a county where you seem to know everybody. Does that ever get you in trouble?

Gallagher: It doesn’t get me “in trouble” but can cause some reason for concern sometimes. I have been shopping before, like at Wal-Mart or somewhere, and someone will approach and say, “Hello, judge.” And I don’t know that person from Adam. Usually, it’s a former juror who tells me how much fun it was to serve in my court. But sometimes it has been someone who is a defendant in my court or a person who is on probation out of my court. So, you do have to be careful.

“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.