U.S. District Judge Gray Miller did his best to follow his father’s advice on careers he should not pursue. So he set off on a professional quest that took him around the world on a ship, through the mean streets of Houston in a police patrol car, and in front of a television camera for a children’s show before he ultimately wound up on the federal bench.
Miller grew up in Houston, where his father Ray Miller was the television news director for KPRC.
“When I was in high school, I pestered him to give me a job in broadcasting. And he said, ‘No. It’s not a profession you want to get into,’ ” Miller says.
So instead, he enrolled in the Merchant Marines Academy, where he trained to be an officer on a ship. “I thought, ‘What a great job. You get a government education and a good job. How could that go wrong?’ “
He sailed around the world as a 19-year-old deck cadet. But he later was assigned to an aging tanker vessel “and it was awful.” Six months after that ship assignment he thought, “Boy, have I made a mistake.”
In 1969, he left the Merchant Marines, returned to Houston and married his high school sweetheart. But he wanted to continue his education, and he needed a job. He found out that the Houston Police Department was hiring, and it was paying for recruits’ college education. But that career choice did not sit well with Miller’s dad, who has since passed away.
“My dad was so apoplectic, he offered me a job. He covered the police beat as a young reporter, and he said, ‘You don’t want to do that.’ ” But Miller joined the police department anyway.
Miller spent most of his time at the police department as a patrolman. Oddly enough, his police career eventually landed him a gig on television in the mid-1970s. Miller was transferred to the Houston Police Department’s community relations division, and he became the host of a five-minute morning television show called “Unit 39,” an educational program for kids that aired after re-runs of “The Three Stooges.”
“I finally got into the business,” Miller says. “And you know, it was a great time slot.”
Miller earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Houston in 1974 and his J.D. from UH in 1978, both while he worked as a policeman.
When he left the police department with his law degree in hand, Miller was snapped up by the Houston office of Fulbright & Jaworski.
“Fulbright was hiring maritime lawyers, and I had taken the one maritime course at U of H,” Miller says. “And being in the Merchant Marines gave me some credibility, so I parlayed that into a job.”
Miller spent his entire attorney career with Fulbright as a maritime lawyer and civil litigator before then-President George W. Bush appointed him to the federal bench in the Southern District of Texas in 2006.
Miller says he does not see many maritime cases as a judge, but his life is not completely devoid of boats.
“I actually own a boat,” Miller says. “I have a ski boat on Lake Livingston.”
Senior reporter John Council, who wonders where he’d be now if his engineer dad would have told him not to go into the news business, e-mailed Miller some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style:
Judge Gray Miller
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas
Appointed to the Bench: 2006
Texas Lawyer: Since your background was in maritime law, how hard was it for you to adjust to the duties of a federal court judge who hears so many types of cases?
Judge Gray Miller: The past three years have been an intensive learning experience, and I am still learning. But with the help of other judges, my law clerks and the lawyers, it has been a challenging yet rewarding experience.
TL: Has your experience as a police officer ever helped you out on the bench?
Miller: Having worked the streets as a Houston police officer, I think I have a good sense of how things work out there and what is plausible and what is not in criminal cases
TL: What can lawyers do to make your job easier?
Miller: Brief, concise and to-the-point briefing.
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?
Miller: You have hit the main things, but discourtesy to the court staff is the one thing I will not tolerate.
TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?
Miller: Sentencing is the hardest thing we do. I still struggle with trying to strike the right balance, using the [U.S.] Sentencing Guidelines as the starting point.
TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?
Miller: If they show up prepared and deal with each other, the witnesses and the court courteously and professionally, they will be fine.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities that you are particularly strict about?
Miller: No. I try not to micromanage the lawyer or the process.
TL: Is there a judge you admire and try to imitate? Why?
Miller: [Senior U.S. District] Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. is my ideal judge. He is fair, patient, treats everyone with respect and follows the law. I try every day to live up to his example. . . .
TL: Is there anything in life that tops hosting your own television show that came on right after “The Three Stooges”?
Miller: Yes, our three granddaughters: Elizabeth, 5; Emme, 4; and Adair, 1. Being a federal judge is a great job, but being a grandfather is the best job in the world.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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