Bob Wortham charted an impressive legal career before landing in Beaumont’s 58th District Court. Since he grew up in the port city, it makes sense that a ship had something to do with him becoming a lawyer.
After Wortham earned a government degree in 1971 from Lamar State College of Technology, his friends and college professors encouraged him to get a law degree, but he didn’t have the cash for tuition. So he looked to the sea for help.
“My father was a seaman. He worked on freighters and tankers. And the way I earned my money for law school was shipping out on the Mobil Eclipse. It was an oil tanker,” Wortham says.
“My father didn’t want me to be a seaman because you’re away from your family so much,” Wortham says. “He didn’t realize how much lawyers are away from their families.”
Wortham received his law degree in 1974 from Baylor University School of Law. He wanted to gain trial experience, so he joined the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office that same year. He got the trial experience he wanted, but Wortham only worked as an assistant DA for one year.
“I was the lowest man on the totem pole. There was no movement upward” because assistant DAs rarely left that office in the 1970s, he says. “If I would have had some upward mobility, I would have stayed there longer.”
Next, Wortham joined a small firm, Waldman & Smallwood, where he continued honing his courtroom skills. In July 1975, he tried the first deceptive trade practices case in Jefferson County.
“We didn’t even have a charge for it. We had to make up a charge . . .,” Wortham says.
Word spread about his trial skills and five years later, Wortham got a call from then-Gov. Bill Clements. Clements, a Republican, wanted to appoint Wortham to a district court bench in Jefferson County.
“There was a judge who died, and he wanted me to take the job. I was sworn in at age 31 as the judge of the 60th District Court,” Wortham says.
Wortham says he was the first Republican to serve on a trial court bench in Jefferson County since the Civil War. But he didn’t get to find out if he’d survive re-election in the heavily Democratic county. The day after Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race, then-U.S. Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, called to ask Wortham if he would apply to be the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Wortham filled out the paperwork, Reagan nominated him and the U.S. Senate eventually confirmed him. He was 32.
In January 1982, not long after he was sworn in, Wortham prosecuted a RICO case involving drug-smuggling. He tried an unusual tactic at the time, he says. “It was the first time a U.S. attorney indicted assets as part of the case,” Wortham says. “We seized more in that case than all of the U.S. attorneys combined had for the past 20 years.”
Wortham stepped down as U.S. attorney when President Bill Clinton became president in 1992.
“When I started we had six lawyers, and when I left we had 38 because we created so much work. We made a lot of defense lawyers rich,” Wortham says of his time as U.S. attorney.
In 1993, Wortham joined Beaumont’s Reaud Morgan & Quinn. He and firm founder Wayne Reaud had been friends since elementary school, Wortham says.
While at the firm, Wortham was part of a team of plaintiffs lawyers who filed a RICO suit against the tobacco industry on behalf of the state of Texas. The case ended in 1998 with a $17.8 billion settlement and later became controversial because of the large attorneys’ fees the plaintiffs lawyers earned in the case.
After 14 years with Reaud Morgan & Quinn, Wortham wanted to go back to the bench. When 58th District Judge Jim Mehaffy decided not to seek re-election, Wortham got his chance.
“I told my wife. And she said, ‘Are you f—— crazy?’ And we were able to work through that issue,” Wortham recalls.
He says he wanted to return to public service and leave behind a job that involved 12 - hour workdays.
It was a natural move for Wortham, Reaud says. “You did have to work at our firm and put in a lot of hours. But if you look at his career, he liked public service,” Reaud says. “There are some people that public service is more important [to] than money. He made enough money, and he wanted to go back to service. I’ve told him since we were young that he had a servant’s heart. And he gave up a lot of money to do it.”
Wortham says he ran as a Democrat and won the bench with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2006.
One thing most lawyers don’t know about Wortham is that he officiated high school and college football games for 33 years. “My knees have given way, so now I’m more of a spectator,” he says.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, whose knees also are shot because he thought running marathons would be a good idea several years ago, e-mailed Wortham some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Bob Wortham
58th District Court
Elected to the Bench: 2006
Texas Lawyer: What is the best way a lawyer can get on your good side?
Judge Bob Wortham: Know how to follow Rule 192 and ask proper discovery questions and properly answer the questions submitted to you. Provide copies of all exhibits to the opposing counsel prior to trial so all objections can be ruled upon before we pick a jury.
TL: Besides lawyers who act in a less-than-civil manner, what kind of courtroom behavior will make you angry?
Wortham: Attorneys that speak too fast or softly cannot be heard or understood by the jury or court reporter. Sneaky is not good, and a jury can see and feel this in an attorney. Beware.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities that you are strict about?
Wortham: [Remain] seated when the jury enters and exits the courtroom. I know they [lawyers] are trying to show respect, but they and the witnesses often make it difficult for the jury to pass when they are all standing. I will instruct everyone to remain seated so the jury does not think one group of attorneys is being rude.
TL: Do you routinely send cases to mediation?
TL: Are you quick to rule or would you rather pore over briefs for a day before making a decision?
Wortham: If I am sure of my ruling I like to rule quickly, but if there is an issue I feel should be checked out I am happy to do so. When attorneys cite cases as authority I prefer they have a copy of the case for me to review. . . .
TL: What have you learned about being a judge that you didn’t know while in private practice?
Wortham: An attorney can have a great point that will win the case for him, but when you ride a dead horse too long the jury becomes insulted. They think you think they are too dumb to figure out the problem. Long-winded is not good without a point.
TL: Do you like to move a trial along or do you let attorneys have as much time as they want?
Wortham: As long as they are making a point I feel the attorneys should be able to develop their issue, but when they become repetitive I move them along.
TL: What do you think all lawyers should explain to their clients before stepping into your courtroom?
Wortham: Always tell the truth, and never get caught in what appears to be a lie. [Clients] should make sure they have had ample time to review their depositions and medical reports before testifying.
TL: All things being equal, who would you rather have an argument with: a lawyer or a high school football coach?
Wortham: I would rather argue with either a lawyer or football coach that knows the rules and the facts other than one that does not understand the rules or what just happened.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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