Judge Josefina Rendón’s close ties to her family have guided many of her legal career decisions — including her decision not to practice law with her husband of more than 30 years.
“My husband decided to get together and practice together. And then I decided, ‘No, I can’t practice with this guy.’ Then I decided to become a judge. But we’re still married, I’ll tell you that,” Rendón says with a laugh.
It turned out that Ruben Rendón is a better life partner for her than a legal partner, she says. In their law office, he was neat and organized, and she was not, she says.
“That must be what it was,” Ruben says. “I ain’t saying anything else.”
Rendón grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but in the mid-1960s, after her father died, she, her brother and her sister-in-law moved to Texas. Rendón was 18; her brother was a U.S. Army doctor stationed at Fort Bliss and her sister-in-law was a psychiatrist. Their achievements instilled confidence in Rendón.
“I got to thinking I could do all of these things like being a lawyer and a judge,” Rendón says. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in sociology in 1972, then entered the UH Bates College of Law while Ruben, who she met as an undergraduate, entered Texas Southern University School of Law. They married while they were 1Ls.
Being married and in law school was not as stressful as one would imagine. “You know, I think it was actually less stressful,” Josefina Rendón says, because the couple had a common bond in facing the same academic challenges. [See "Lawyers in Love," Texas Lawyer, Feb. 8, 2010, page 1.]
After they graduated in 1976, Ruben became a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund in San Francisco, and Josefina became a clerk for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
They moved back to Houston a year later, where Ruben became regional counsel for MALDEF and Josefina became a solo practicing immigration, family and criminal law.
“I really liked it. There are so many people that don’t speak English well and are marginalized. And it was fun to help them,” she says.
After Ruben left MALDEF, the couple practiced law together as Rendón & Rendón for a year before he started Rendón & Associates in Houston. Ruben practices workers’ compensation and personal-injury law.
In 1983, Josefina became a full-time municipal judge for the city of Houston. Twelve years later, she decided to work as a mediator and part-time municipal judge.
Rendón says a Harris County Democratic Party official approached her about running for the 165th District Court in the 2008 general election against incumbent Judge Elizabeth Ray, but Rendón wasn’t sure.
“I really liked the judge I was running against. I was very ambivalent about it,” Rendón says. But she says she figured if she didn’t run, someone else would.
In 2008, Rendón was part of the near sweep of the Harris County courthouses; Democratic candidates took all but three benches away from the GOP. Because Rendón and Ray ran a cordial race, there were no hard feelings, Rendón says. Ray even spoke at Rendón’s investiture and Rendón kept all of Ray’s courtroom staff.
“It turned out OK,” Rendón says.
When Rendón is off the bench, she enjoys writing scholarly articles about mediation and cultural diversity.
Senior Reporter John Council e-mailed Rendón some questions to ponder. Here are her answers, edited for length and style:
Judge Josefina Rendón
165th District Court
Elected to the Bench: 2008
Texas Lawyer: If a lawyer has never appeared before you, what’s the most important thing they should know about how you run your court?
Judge Josefina Rendón: I run the court with very few formalities. But lawyers should know that I have high expectations of them. I expect them to be prepared and act professionally. I expect them to show respect for the court and for others in the courtroom. Above all, I expect them to be truthful and ethical. . . .
TL: In your opinion, what kind of dispute is best resolved by a trial by court?
Rendón: If we are talking about disputes best resolved by the court as opposed to the jury, it would be those disputes that involve complex legal issues that would be more easily understood and resolved by lawyers and the judge than by laypersons. If we are talking about disputes best resolved by the court as opposed to alternative means such as mediation, my answer may be controversial for a judge. I believe that there is hardly any dispute that is better resolved by a court than by the parties themselves, if given a reasonable chance. There are definitely exceptions to this previous statement. But I believe that, given the right opportunities, the parties themselves often have more wisdom and common sense to resolve their own disputes than we judges and lawyers give them credit.
TL: What should a lawyer avoid doing during voir dire?
Rendón: For their own benefit, lawyers should avoid talking too long and repeating themselves so as not to bore the jury and lose their attention. A lawyer should also avoid cutting off a juror or showing disinterest when a juror goes into a narrative since this disinterest tends to turn other jurors off.
TL: Tell us something that an attorney has done in your court that impressed you.
Rendón: It always impresses me to see an attorney who is well prepared, who can anticipate opposing counsel’s arguments and who has a quick, articulate comeback for every such argument. I am even more impressed when an attorney already has specific case law, on point, highlighted and ready to show the court on almost every issue to be argued.
TL: What type of civil actions are you most comfortable hearing?
Rendón: I am most comfortable hearing those cases in which the attorneys are civil to each other and conduct themselves in such [an] ethical and professional manner that they don’t require my constant vigilance and policing of their actions. I am most comfortable hearing cases in which the attorneys don’t overdo it with unnecessary objections, bad-faith behavior, dilatory practices, etc.
TL: What kind of civil action is most perplexing to you?
Rendón: I have found that the things people do in court are often much more perplexing than any law or legal issue I have ever encountered. Occasionally, I hear family law cases in the 165th. It is still perplexing to me how many otherwise good people do very bad things to the mother or father of their child or to someone who they allegedly cared for at some point in time. It is also perplexing to see lawyers lose their role as lawyers and, instead, bicker and fight with each other as if they were the disputing parties themselves.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities that you are particularly strict about?
Rendón: Formalities? Very few, other than to expect lawyers to be civil and professional. Oh yes, turn off your phone. Don’t use BlackBerrys, iPhones, etc., while court is in session. . . .
TL: How do you think understanding cultural diversity can be important in resolving civil disputes?
Rendón: I think lawyers greatly underestimate the importance of cultural diversity in litigation and on its potential resolution. Cultural differences are sometimes the very cause of disputes. Consequently, pre-trial resolution could be as easy as recognizing and helping the parties recognize those differences. This is especially true in contract situations where cultural differences may result in fundamentally different, though good-faith interpretations of the meaning of critical words, contractual duties, performance and other contract issues. The parties’ cultural background could also have an impact on their expectations of the attorneys, the judge, and their chances of winning or losing in court. Differing cultural values also impact the parties’ willingness to continue litigation or reach resolution.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.