One would assume that Sol Casseb III was destined to be a state civil district judge because that’s what his father, Sol Casseb Jr., did for more than three decades. But the younger Casseb had to march to his own drumbeat to get to the bench.
Casseb remembers hanging around the Bexar County Courthouse as a kid and not being particularly excited about his father’s line of work.
“He was a civil district judge, which is what I am. When you’re a teenager, you want to see criminal trials, so it was pretty boring,” Casseb says.
What did excite Casseb was his drum kit. Not only was it a hobby, playing the drums funded Casseb’s education.
“I worked my way through college and law school playing drums in various rock bands,” says Casseb, who earned a political science degree from St. Mary’s University in 1970 and his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1973.
The most notable band Casseb played in was The Laughing Kind, a rock band that formed in the 1960s in Port Aransas. It became established enough that it became the opening act for late 60s rock legends Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly and Three Dog Night.
In fact, Casseb was so enamored with the drums that he kept playing professionally after he got his law degree.
“I tried to play drums and practice law,” Casseb says. “I took a leap of faith and started practicing law exclusively. And it worked out for me.”
After law school, Casseb practiced criminal defense law in San Antonio for four and half years. He then joined the firm started by his father, Casseb & Pearl, and became a general practitioner. He spent the last 15 years in private practice doing arbitration and mediation before Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the 288th District Court in 2008.
“It kind of equipped me for this job. I was already sort of a private judge,” Casseb says of his time serving as an arbitrator and mediator.
And his elderly father was able to see him finally follow his footsteps to the civil district bench.
“The last thing that he did as a judge was swear me in on Dec. 6, 2008. That was the last act he performed as a judge and the last time he put on a robe,” Casseb says. “His health had deteriorated. But it was pretty amazing that he did it. He was 93 at that point. And he died at 94 and a half.”
When he’s off the bench, Casseb still plays the drums. He’s a member of The Court Jesters, a band made up of lawyers and judges who play Bar functions.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who used to play the piano but has since forgotten how, e-mailed Casseb some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Sol Casseb III
288th District Court, Bexar County
First Appointed to the Bench: 2008
Texas Lawyer: What should a lawyer never, ever do in your courtroom?
Judge Sol Casseb III: I don’t have any such rules. I simply try to treat the lawyers with respect and ask that they do the same with me and opposing counsel. So far it has not been a problem.
TL: What kind of hours do you keep at the courthouse? Are you an arrive early, stay late kind of judge?
Casseb: For a number of years prior to taking the bench, I was a mediator and arbitrator, such that many of my days were 10 or 12 hours or more. I’m used to starting early and staying late. I get to the courthouse before 8:00 a.m. and leave somewhere between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m. (sometimes later).
TL: How can a lawyer make your job easier?
Casseb: Attorneys can make judges’ jobs easier if they will spend a little time with their clients (especially in family law cases) preparing “convenience exhibits” prior to trial. It is a great timesaver to have a client simply sponsor a list of expenses or an inventory of assets and liabilities, rather than testify orally as to each and every item — and it gives the judge a handy reference tool.
TL: If a lawyer believes you’ve made a mistake in a ruling, what’s the best way he can convince you to change your mind?
Casseb: I don’t mind if a lawyer calls a mistake to my attention, either in argument or in a Motion for Reconsideration. I would rather have the opportunity to correct an error than to have the litigant bear the cost of an appeal.
TL: What have you learned about being a judge that never occurred to you while you were in private practice?
Casseb: Do not start in the middle; start at the beginning. The biggest mistake that most lawyers make is to assume that a judge has as much knowledge about a case as the lawyers. It would be most helpful if you would give me a chance to review the pleadings and then explain your position in basic terms: 1. These are the basic facts. 2. This is what I am asking the court to do. 3. This is why I am asking the court to do it.
TL: Do you send all cases in your court to arbitration or mediation?
Casseb: Cases cannot be arbitrated except by agreement of the parties. In Bexar County, the district courts have a standing policy that all jury cases must go to mediation. There is no standing policy regarding nonjury cases. I had great success as a mediator for a number of years, so, consequently, when I have the opportunity, I encourage litigants to mediate, especially in family law cases. Mediation, by its very nature, takes the focus off wining and losing and seeks to structure a new family dynamic that hopefully will serve the parties for years to come (as opposed to continuous court battles).
TL: What kind of cases perplex you the most?
Casseb: Complex multiparty cases are the most intellectually difficult cases for me (and, I suspect, for most judges). However, the cases that drain a judge emotionally involve custody of children — as I once heard a judge of many years say: “Those are the ones that keep you up at night.”
TL: In your opinion, what kind of case is best suited for a trial before the court instead of a trial by jury?
Casseb: I think that a complicated family law case involving characterization and division of property is more suited for a bench trial, especially if a judge has extensive family law experience. In Texas, only a judge (as opposed to a jury) can divide property, and since Texas is an equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution state, those types of cases simply seem better suited for a trial to the court.
TL: Are you of the opinion that jury trials should take as long as they take, or should there be some time limitations to them?
Casseb: I don’t think jury trials should be subject to arbitrary time limitations. I do think that, in this day and age, some of the more sophisticated attorneys have discovered that less is more and are finding ways to streamline their presentations. All lawyers live with a great fear that we will leave out something important, so we have a tendency to “overkill.” However, in the era of immediate gratification, faster Internet connections and the like, the modern trend seems to be to put on your case as quickly and efficiently as possible. Although I have only been on the bench a short time, it has been my experience that juries appear to be responding positively to this technique.
TL: What’s more appealing to you: playing the drums or listening to lawyers argue over a summary judgment motion?
Casseb: Objection — argumentative.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.