Gena Slaughter had lots of plans for how she wanted her career to turn out. But life got in the way — several times. “I had one of those weird career paths,” Slaughter says.
A native of Plano, Slaughter had dreams of working in international business in Germany after she graduated from Texas Tech University in 1994. She even has a bachelor’s degree in German.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 didn’t do much for her job prospects after graduation, she says. German reunification had a negative impact on employment opportunities, as people from the former East Germany flooded into the former West Germany for work.
So she pursued another line of work. “I decided that I wanted to be a police officer, much to my parents’ dismay,” Slaughter says.
She applied to the Dallas Police Department and the Texas Highway Patrol. While she was waiting to get into a police academy, Slaughter took a job as a 911 operator for the city of Highland Park.
But Slaughter was severely injured in a car accident that broke one of her legs and most of her teeth. The damage to her leg made her realize she probably could not pass the physical testing required of police recruits.
So she changed career paths once again. She became fascinated with the Texas Penal Code while reading over it while working as a 911 operator and was impressed with then-civil attorney Robert Dry, who is now judge of the 199th District Court in Collin County. He helped her with an insurance claim related to the car accident. So she entered Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law as a part-time student while working nights as a 911 operator.
Slaughter graduated from SMU law school cum laude in 1999 and began practicing construction law at a series ofseveral small Dallas firms. By 2005, she began making plans to run for a state district court bench.
She was having dinner with a family friend, Ted B. Lyon, a Mesquite plaintiff’s attorney and former state senator, when she mentioned her political aspirations to him.
“I said I might want to run in 10 or 12 years. And Ted Lyon suggested that I run now,” Slaughter says. “He said I had a reasonably good shot and I’d be a good judge.”
Three days after that conversation, Slaughter announced she was running. But there was yet another hitch. She and her husband were actively trying to have children.
“I announce in October, and I get pregnant in March. Oops,” Slaughter says.
As the November 2006 neared, Slaughter was really close to giving birth.
“I’m very pregnant, it’s very stressful, and I’m having mood swings. I had a breakdown in October because I was mentally and physically exhausted,” Slaughter says. “My husband is a Republican, and he’s run campaigns in Louisiana. I was basically saying: ‘Why did you let me do this?’ ” She says her husband told her if just one Democrat won in November, she would always wonder if it could have been her. “ And of course the answer is: He was right.”
Slaughter won the 191st District Court bench along with 40 other Democrats who swept the 2006 trial court bench races in Dallas County.
When she attended the Texas Center for the Judiciary’s new judge school in December 2007, she took her 10-day-old daughter with her.
“In retrospect I was probably insane. I just didn’t know better at the time,” Slaughter says of her decision to take a newborn to a judicial training class.
Off the bench, Slaughter loves collecting antiques, especially cookbooks and kitchen utensils from the 1940s and 1950s.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, whose prized possession is a working O’Keefe & Merritt chrome-top stove from the 1950s, e-mailed Slaughter some questions to ponder. Here are her answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Gena Slaughter
191st District Court
Elected to the Bench: 2006
Texas Lawyer: While not implying that this would ever happen, what act by a lawyer in your courtroom would cause you to lose your temper?
Judge Gena Slaughter: I’m actually known for being very laid back, but I won’t tolerate rudeness to anyone in the courtroom. I also get upset when it is clear that an attorney isn’t living up to his obligation to [do] the best job he can for his client. Shoddy, lazy lawyering upsets me. Outside the courtroom, I will not tolerate rudeness to my staff. The policies and rules they act under are either mine or the district clerk’s. If you don’t like the rules, send me a letter or request a meeting with me (which I have always granted), but don’t scream at my staff about it or call them names. Ever.
TL: What kind of case filed in your court is most likely to cause you to run to the law books and make sure you’re fresh on the topic?
Slaughter: I clerked for Justice Ben Z. Grant on the 6th Court of Appeals when I first graduated. I learned to love legal research, so I frequently research case law on my own. One of the reasons I love being a trial judge is that I learn something new every day, and every day has a new challenge for me. Since I took the bench, I have had the opportunity to learn more about several areas of law I didn’t know much about before — administrative, admiralty, insurance coverage to name a few. I already knew a great deal about arbitration and have co-authored articles on the topic. However, arbitration is very dynamic, and recent developments have kept me in the books and on Lexis.
TL: What is the most artful cross-examination tactic you’ve ever seen on the bench?
Slaughter: Getting in, asking a few targeted questions and then shutting up. I have found that minimalism in cross-examination is frequently the best tactic. Jurors are more likely to be sympathetic to a witness than to an attorney. When an attorney does a lengthy cross-examination, is aggressive or snarky to a witness, repeatedly questions the witness on minutiae or repeatedly asks the same question when it is clear that the witness is not going to answer differently, it just gives the witness more credibility with the jury and undermines the cross-examiner’s case.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities that you are particularly strict about?
Slaughter: The biggest thing for me is being respectful to the witnesses, the jury, the other attorneys, the court and its staff. Other than that, I run a fairly casual courtroom. I am more concerned about attitude than attire. Sometimes when you have an emergency, you come as you are. I also dislike waiting while attorneys fumble around admitting evidence. I expect preparation. Unless a document is being used for impeachment, the offering attorney should have marked it and presented it to opposing counsel for review outside the presence of the jury. I hate wasting the jury’s time (and my time) with a five-minute exercise when opposing counsel has no objection to the evidence’s admission.
TL: Where do you draw the line when an attorney files repeated continuances in a case?
Slaughter: I draw the line when . . . it becomes clear that the attorney is either stalling (for whatever reason) or stalling because he hasn’t done his job and prepared his case. If you are over a year into a case and you haven’t done the most basic discovery, you’re in trouble. I don’t believe litigation has to be a breathtaking race to the jury box, but I do expect attorneys to work their cases in a timely manner. If both parties request a continuance and demonstrate to me why more time is needed, then I have no problem with a continuance. Each case has its own quirks and difficulties. If the parties agree and communicate those to me, then I will give the attorneys more time.
TL: What kind of dispute is best left for mediation instead of litigation in your court?
Slaughter: I think interpersonal disputes (as contrasted with commercial or business disputes) have a better result in mediation than in the courtroom. Anytime you have family members or (former) friends suing each other, many times the driving force behind the litigation is the interpersonal dispute much more than the money. Slinging mud at each other, even if it results in a jury verdict, is not the best way to resolve this type of dispute.
TL: Do you keep your mouth shut when a good litigant has a bad lawyer?
Slaughter: This is a tough situation. I have seen some great lawyering and some really bad lawyering. Most of the time the situation doesn’t come up because most of the bad lawyering comes out during hearings when clients are rarely there. Usually, decisions and discussions related to what attorneys should have done are over by the time trial starts where the client could hear it. Having said that, if a client is present, I will usually tell an attorney honestly but politely what the problem is.
TL: Are you of the mind that a trial should take as long as it takes, or let’s get this over with already?
Slaughter: There has to be a balance. One thing I’ve learned is that attorneys are terrible at predicting how long a trial will take. I don’t mind taking as long as necessary for the case to be fully heard and tried fairly. However, I hate wasting time, especially that of the jury. The jurors are the only ones in the courtroom who are there with no choice. One comment I frequently get from jurors after the trial is over is that the attorneys must think the jurors were stupid, since the attorneys felt they had to repeat every important fact (and many trivial ones) four or five times. On the other hand, so long as an attorney is not being repetitive or wasteful, I am very generous with time.
TL: Do you believe that there are some cases that are just too complicated for a jury?
Slaughter: I truly believe in the jury system and of the power of juries. The longer I am on the trial bench, the more strongly I feel this. I think juries try hard and, overall, do a very good job. However, cases that are extremely technical or predominantly law-driven are better for a bench trial. In the technical cases, it’s not that the jury couldn’t or can’t understand the material, given time. The problem is more the attorneys’ abilities to transmit that information in a way the jury can understand.
TL: What is your best advice for a pregnant woman who wants to run for office?
Slaughter: Have lots and lots of ice cream and a very supportive spouse or significant other! I hadn’t planned on being pregnant when I ran for office, but man plans, and God laughs. It was extremely challenging, to say the least. But people remembered me, especially women. I was lucky to have an extremely supportive spouse who likes politics. My husband was involved in politics in another state before he moved to Texas, so he knew much better than I did how hard it was going to be. He was with me every step of the way. I was also lucky to have the support of all of the other judicial candidates when I ran. We joke that my daughter has 40 godparents. Good ice cream (preferably Rocky Road) also helped improve my mood at the end of a long day.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.