John Hyde’s love for the law blossomed in dusty Abilene, where he grew up in the 1950s. And he’s not kidding about the dust; the dirt in the air of the drought-gripped town was so thick, it was hard to see, he says.
“A lot of dust blew in the ’50s, and people drove in the daylight with their headlights on. That drought didn’t break until ’57 or ’58. And I was in high school before that drought broke,” Hyde says.
On some of those dusty afternoons, Hyde would duck into the Taylor County Courthouse for entertainment.
“I was impressed with the formality of the courtroom and the knowledge of the lawyers representing clients. And that attracted me to law school,” Hyde says.
Hyde stayed close to home for college, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1964 from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. In 1967, he earned his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law.
But as luck would have it, the Army, rather than a legal job, came calling for Hyde shortly after he got his J.D. He received a draft notice, so he pleaded his case to the draft board. “I said, ‘Please, I’m studying for the bar exam.’ They gave me two months,” he says.
He passed the Texas bar and reported for duty at Fort Polk, La., on Jan. 22, 1968, where he spent nine months as a brigade legal clerk. In 1969 he was shipped off to Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War. Hyde’s law degree helped keep an M-16 rifle out of his hand. Instead, he worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Army at the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, adjudicating foreign claims against the U.S. government.
“They did not pay combat damages. But if somebody’s cow got run over or their property got damaged by a vehicle, the U.S. government would compensate them for that loss,” Hyde says.
After his service, Hyde returned to Texas and took a job in the Midland City Attorney’s Office, where he worked for five years. That position gave him something he treasures: his wife.
“I met my wife, who was on a jury in a case that I tried in 1972,” Hyde says. It was a car wreck suit and he won. “[A]fter that trial, I asked her out. I was ethical enough to ask her out after the trial was over.”
He later left the city attorney’s office and formed Freeman Hyde & Martin, where he practiced for 16 years.
In 1990, Hyde fulfilled his dream of resolving conflicts as a judge when he was elected to the 238th District Court.
When Hyde is not on the bench, he loves to darken the lights and lose himself in 1940s-era black and white movies.
“I like Humphrey Bogart movies. I even like the B-grade movies. I just liked the lighting in those movies that color seems to take away,” Hyde says. “The Hitchcock movies and the Bogart movies of the ’40s were just marvelous.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who has seen 1941′s “Sergeant York” at least 15 times and dares anyone to challenge the coolness of Gary Cooper, e-mailed Hyde some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge John Hyde
238th District Court
First Elected to Bench: 1990
Texas Lawyer: If there is one thing a lawyer should know about how you run your court, what would that be?
Judge John Hyde: I greatly appreciate punctuality. I have not forgotten the stress on practicing attorneys, but time management is important to me.
TL: Tell us about something an attorney did in your court recently that you appreciated?
Hyde: An attorney recently stated on the record during a jury trial that the law was against the contention he was making. His ethical behavior will not be forgotten.
TL: Let’s say you’ve just made a ruling and a lawyer believes that you are wrong. What’s the best way to convince you to change your mind?
Hyde: Simply ask to be heard again. If I am wrong I prefer to know it sooner rather than later.
TL: What kind of case interests you the most?
Hyde: Felony trials.
TL: What kind of case troubles you the most?
Hyde: Child abuse cases.
TL: During voir dire, do you ever step in and “reform” a juror who is giving answers that might get them struck for cause?
Hyde: Yes. If voir dire becomes advocacy rather than even-handed truth-seeking, I intervene.
TL: What kind of hours do you keep during a trial — do you start early and stay late?
Hyde: Usually 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
TL: What should a lawyer absolutely never do in your court, besides being rude to his or her fellow counsel?
Hyde: Misrepresent what the law is. I can appreciate advocacy that is [at] odds with existing law, but the ethical candor of an attorney who advises the court when the law is contrary to his or her contention is the highest level of professionalism.
TL: What have you learned about being a judge that you never knew when you were a practicing attorney?
Hyde: The emotional stress involved in applying the law to a patently unfair result. The law is not always fair, but a judge’s oath requires that the law be upheld.
TL: What movie from the 1940s can you watch over and over and over again and why?
Hyde: “Casablanca.” The movie displays self-sacrifice, patriotism and courage. The character portrayals are superior by every actor in the film, and there are many lines from the movie that are timeless.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.