Growing up in a small town in the 1960s, Judge Gracie Lewis lived an idyllic farm life that included driving her grandfather’s tractor and getting vegetables ready for market. But Hempstead, Texas, also taught Lewis some ugly lessons, she says.
“Hempstead has had a reputation for having a lot of racial problems. When I was a child, there was a man who was killed. And he was African-American. And he started dating a white female behind the father’s back. It was kind of a secret that everybody knew,” Lewis says. “And at some point, the young man decided he was going to talk to the girl’s father and be upfront. And he went to the door, and the [woman's father] killed him. And nothing ever happened.
“I just remember as a child thinking: ‘How can you kill somebody and nothing happens to you?’ It was such an injustice in my mind. And I wanted to be in a position to help people that didn’t have any help. And that sparked the desire in my heart to be an attorney,” says Lewis, now judge of Dallas Criminal District Court No. 3.
|Video: Judge Gracie Lewis of Dallas Criminal District Court No. 3 talks about growing up in a small Texas town.|
That desire was difficult to accomplish because Lewis’ family was of modest means. But Lewis was a good student and spent a lot of time in her high school library. The librarian took an interest in Lewis, who read in the library every day.
“She said, ‘You need to go to college, and I’m going to make sure that you go to college,’ ” Lewis says. “ All of her sons had gone to the University of Texas at Austin. She applied to the University of Texas for me. She got the scholarship applications for me. And she would send them home with me, and my grandfather would sign them. I got a scholarship to the University of Texas, and that’s where I went.”
Lewis graduated from UT in 1983 with a psychology degree and then attended the University of Houston Bates College of Law, where she graduated in 1986.
Her first job as a lawyer was as a Collin County assistant district attorney, a job she stayed at less than a year, she says.
“It didn’t sit well with me,” Lewis says. “I got some experience. I enjoyed the people. They were very nice to me. I just didn’t enjoy prosecuting.”
She then became an attorney with the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office, which was “a much better fit for me.” After seven years with that office, Lewis decided she wanted a new challenge. So she became an associate judge for the 305th District Court, which handles juvenile law matters.
Lewis spent 14 years in that job and gained some notoriety in 2005 when she played a role in catching a man who was falsely holding himself out as a lawyer. Lewis previously had heard a description of the fake lawyer. And she got suspicious when a man matching his description appeared in her court professing to represent a juvenile client. She demanded to see John Dejean’s bar card, and he handed her a business card with a bar card number written on the back, she says. It was a bad move because Lewis checked the bar card number on the State Bar of Texas website, and it matched the number belonging to a real attorney she knew. Lewis called the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office to report what happened. Dejean was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft and three counts of falsely holding himself out as an attorney and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2006. [ See "The Real Deal," Texas Lawyer, Sept. 4, 2006, page 1. ]
Dejean died in prison of natural causes in May, says Jason Cook, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
In 2008, when Dallas Criminal District Court No. 3 Judge Bobby Francis decided to retire from the bench, Lewis reasoned that running for his open seat would be a natural progression for her career.
“I’d been a prosecutor and defense attorney and a juvenile judge,” she says. Lewis won the bench in the 2008 general election.
When Lewis is off the bench, she loves going on cruises.
“I love the water. I cruise with a group of ladies. There are about 30 of us,” Lewis says. “And we go somewhere every year. And the last two years we’ve gone to Europe. We went to Rome one year, and we went to the Mediterranean last year.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who also loves trips to Europe but prefers to get there via airplane, e-mailed Lewis some questions to ponder. Here are her answers, edited for length and style:
Judge Gracie Lewis
Dallas Criminal District Court No. 3
Elected to the bench: 2008
Texas Lawyer: What can lawyers do to make your job easier?
Judge Gracie Lewis: Know the law. Talk to their client and take pride in the job they do. It pains me to see someone not being represented well. I may not agree, but with a good lawyer I will respect them, and they make my job easier. I believe that, for the most part, Dallas County has a spectacular defense bar.
TL: What should a lawyer always tell his client before he or she appears before you?
Lewis: Don’t get caught in a lie. Dress and act like this is important to you. Take this seriously because your freedom is at stake. Be respectful.
TL: What rule of evidence most often trips up lawyers in your court?
Lewis: Hearsay objections can be a challenge to a lawyer. Especially with Rule 803 and the Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts rulings. Additionally, expert testimony admissibility under Rules 702/703 of the Texas Rules of Evidence.
TL: What should a defense attorney always have worked out with a prosecutor before presenting a plea agreement to you?
Lewis: There needs to be a meeting of the minds between the state and the defense and between the defense attorney and his client as to all elements of the plea agreement. It causes so many problems when, in the middle of a plea, the defense asks the court to do something that is not agreed upon by the parties.
TL: What do you enjoy most about being a judge?
Lewis: I consider it an honor to serve my community and to help those in need — whether they are a defendant in need of drug treatment or a family that finally receives justice for their loved one. This is an exciting and rewarding job.
TL: What do you enjoy least about being a judge?
Lewis: I enjoy least the administrative duties — the meetings, budgets and staff supervision. This is a small percentage of what we do, but it can be a tiring part of our jobs.
TL: What is the best way a lawyer can convince you to lower a bond?
Lewis: A judge has to consider whether the defendant is a risk to flee or not appear in court and whether the defendant is at risk to commit a new offense in determining a bond. Therefore, I want to hear your client’s criminal history and their history of appearing in court as required. Also, how stable is your client’s life — employment, family, ties to the community. Be creative in possible conditions of bond to address things that may be an issue. The worst thing that any attorney can do is lie to me or try to bully me. It does not work and makes it harder for you to do your job next time.
TL: What should a lawyer never, ever do in your courtroom?
Lewis: I am appalled when attorneys are rude to each other, lie to each other or to the court. And the thing that annoys me the most is tardiness. I try very hard to be timely, and I expect the same from others. Tardiness is disrespectful of others’ time.
TL: Tell us something that you learned while growing up in Hempstead that you’ve carried with you to the bench.
Lewis: I was raised by my grandparents who made sure that I was a believer in Jesus Christ. This gives me balance and perspective in the work that I do. Additionally, my faith reinforces the integrity that I was taught as a child.
TL: Where will you be cruising to next?
Lewis: We are going to the Caribbean, my favorite place to vacation.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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