When Mark Rusch moved to Houston from New Jersey as a 12-year-old, he got a shock that’s common among kids who grew up watching cowboy movies on television.
“I thought there were going to be horses and tumbleweeds. And it was suburbia. I grew up on the west side of Houston, and it was far from the King Ranch,” Rusch says.
“The worst part of Houston was mowing the yard on New Year’s Eve and swatting mosquitoes. There’s supposed to be snow on the ground,” says Rusch, whose father worked for Shell Oil Co. “And that first year was just odd. The entire neighborhood was people who worked in the oil industry. And they were all brand new, too.”
As Rusch grew older, he had dreams of becoming a congressman. To accomplish that goal, he believed he needed to become a lawyer, because many members of Congress are attorneys.
So after graduating from the University of Dallas in 1979 with a degree in political philosophy, Rusch put his plan in motion by attending the University of Houston Bates School of Law.
“I went to law school. I was going to go to Congress,” Rusch says. But that plan fell by the wayside when Rusch figured he was missing a key component of a run for a congressional seat: “obscene amounts of money,” he says. So his plan changed. And it was just as well, Rusch says.
“I think I realized in my criminal law class and my constitutional law class that these are the issues that I really found exciting and interesting. And I was paying more attention to what congressmen were doing; they spend most of their time running for re-election than actually doing things. I thought being a judge would allow me to deal with those issues on a daily basis, and that was how I wanted to spend my time. So I figured out: How do I get there from here?”
Rusch reasoned that many judges in Texas are former prosecutors. So he started looking for one of those jobs. Lucky for Rusch, there was a posting on the bulletin board at the UH law school advertising that the Collin County District Attorney’s Office was interviewing. He graduated from law school in 1983 and became a Collin County assistant DA the next year.
Rusch worked as a prosecutor for 12-and-half years. “I prosecuted everything from traffic tickets to capital murder,” Rusch says. Then, when Collin County Court-at-Law No. 4 was created in 1996, he was elected to that bench.
Four years later, then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed Rusch to the 401st District Court where he has been ever since. It’s a job Rusch still can’t believe he has.
“I have my dream job. It’s cool. I keep waiting for someone to come through the door with a candid camera,” Rusch says.
When he’s off the bench, Rusch loves spending time with his family.
Rusch met his wife at the University of Dallas, and they’ve been married for 31 years.
“We graduated from college on a Sunday and got married the following Friday,” Rusch says. “Our first child came home from the hospital on our first anniversary.” Rusch likes to tell people that he gave his wife a pair of earrings that day and he got a daughter.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council e-mailed Rusch some questions to ponder. Here are Rusch’s answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Mark Rusch
401st District Court
Appointed to the Bench: 2000
Texas Lawyer: What can attorneys do to make your life easier?
Judge March Rusch: Pre-mark exhibits; check in with court staff or bailiff even if you are in another court. For trials by court, proposed findings of fact/conclusions of law are helpful for me to have at the beginning of the proceeding. Be familiar with our local rules.
TL: Are there any courtroom formalities that you are particularly strict about?
Rusch: Refraining from sidebar comments, especially in front of juries, is what I’m probably most insistent about.
TL: Do you automatically order mediation in most family court cases, and why or why not?
Rusch: No I don’t automatically order it. I prefer to not micromanage your lawsuit. That said, I regularly order mediation in family law matters because it works, and it is a more cost-effective way of disposing of the lawsuit.
TL: What should an attorney absolutely have worked out before he or she approaches you with a plea bargain?
Rusch: We have standard forms/paperwork that we use for negotiated pleas. Those forms, including “back time,” should be completed before beginning the plea.
TL: What is the best way an attorney can convince you to lower a bond for his or her client?
Rusch: Talk to the DA’s office, and obtain their agreement. I’ve never not lowered a bond that was agreed to be lowered.
TL: In your opinion, what rule of evidence trips up attorneys the most in your court?
Rusch: [Rule] 608(b), especially in noncriminal matters. The number of attorneys who think that “credibility of the witness” is a magic phrase that allows them to ask any question they want is staggering.
TL: What’s the easiest way a lawyer can make you angry?
Rusch: Lie to me. Never, ever lie to me. After that, failing to appear for a hearing and talking over me are my two pet peeves.
TL: What kind of case do you believe is best suited for a trial before the court?
Rusch: Family law matters; cases that turn on legal rather than factual matters.
TL: Are you of the opinion that trials should last as long as they last, or let’s get this over with already?
Rusch: Most trials take significantly longer to put on than is necessary. If you can’t summarize your lawsuit in 25 words or less, then you don’t truly understand your case. Very few bench trials need more than half-a-day’s worth of evidence; most jury trials should be completed in one-and-a-half to two days. Most lawyers forget two important rules I learned at baby prosecutor school years ago: 1. There has yet to be the jury that was as enamored with the lawyer’s voice as the lawyer. 2. The brain can only absorb what the butt is willing to let it.
TL: When a lawyer leaves your courtroom, what kind of an impression do you hope you’ve made on them?
Rusch: I hope they leave thinking that my ruling was based on the law and their client received a fair hearing.
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