Judge Jose Longoria can relate to the plight of the working man, because he has been one for a long time.
“We were what you would consider poor,” Longoria says of his family. Growing up in Corpus Christi, he began selling newspapers at the age of 6. “My dad was working for a bakery, and when someone didn’t show up, I had to get up at 4 o’clock and go help him. When I was about maybe 15, I started working at the Catholic hospital. I worked in the kitchen and cleaned pots and pans.”
By the early 1960s, Longoria worked at H.E. Butt Grocers, a business owned by Henry E. Butt. Butt’s South Texas-based company later became the well-known H-E-B chain, which has more than 300 food stores in Texas and Mexico.
“One day on an early Saturday morning, we were unloading a trailer. And the manager tells me, ‘Go to the front and work as a checker.’ A small person walked in with a tall guy,” Longoria says. “I didn’t have a sacker. So this smaller person started sacking for me. I told him, ‘Be sure you put the cans on the bottom and the eggs on the top.’ It happened to be Mr. H.E. Butt himself.”
Longoria eventually left the grocery business behind to attend the University of Texas in Austin. He wanted an education, but his father had another view. “My dad said that the reason I didn’t want to work anymore and wanted to go to college was because I was lazy,” Longoria says.
But attending UT didn’t turn out to be a long vacation, Longoria says.
“I went to UT the first year and dropped out for about two-and-a-half years because there was no money,” Longoria says. So he went home to Corpus Christi and worked as a clerk in the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office to earn enough money to return to UT.
His friends told him he’d never give up a steady paycheck to go back to college, but Longoria did, earning a history and government degree from UT in 1970.
After college, Longoria again returned to his old job at the Nueces County DA’s office. But a few years later, he left to attend Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He graduated in 1976.
After earning his J.D., Longoria moved back to Corpus again, but he didn’t return to the DA’s office. Longoria told himself, “Shoot, I’m going to make some money for myself,” so he became a solo practitioner.
“I practiced whatever came in the door,” Longoria says. “Back then lawyers didn’t want to do the juvenile work. I did that.”
One of his clients happened to be the man who helped him bag groceries as a teenager decades earlier. Longoria says he represented Henry E. Butt in a property dispute in state district court.
Longoria always has set goals for himself. “I remember when I first came back as a lawyer I went to a bar luncheon. And I said, ‘I could be president of the bar if I really wanted to,’ ” Longoria says. “ And within six years, I was the president of the Nueces County Bar. I was the second-ever Hispanic president of the Nueces County Bar.”
Longoria says he first considered becoming a judge years ago, when he served on the Corpus Christi Airport board of directorswith Hayden Head Sr., the father of Senior U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. of the Southern District of Texas.
“He was the finest gentlemen you’d ever meet. He said, ‘There’s a possibility of a seat on a court, and I think you’d do a good job,’ ” Longoria says. But Longoria didn’t pursue a bench at that time. “ I had three little ones, and there was no way,” he says.
In 2000, when his kids weren’t so little anymore, Longoria ran for the 214th District Court in Nueces County and won.
When he’s off the bench, Longoria often is at the gym working out to stay healthy. “I’ve got a son that’s a pain. He says, ‘Do you go work out?’ I shouldn’t have sent him to medical school,” Longoria jokes.
Longoria enjoys the exercise, because it relieves the stress of his job. But he sometimes is accused of socializing at the gym more than working out.
“People say, ‘You do that so you can talk a lot,’ ” Longoria says of his time in the gym. “ But that’s how I get re-elected.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who likely has no future in Nueces County politics because he avoids gyms, e-mailed Longoria some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Judge John Longoria
214th District Court
Elected to Bench: 2000
Texas Lawyer: What should a lawyer absolutely never do in your courtroom?
Judge Jose Longoria: Interrupt the judge.
TL: In your opinion, when is the best time to order a case to mediation?
Longoria: After proper discovery.
TL: At what point do you start losing patience with lawyers who file multiple continuance motions?
Longoria: When the motions are obviously frivolous or are filed by lawyers who are clearly unprepared.
TL: What should every lawyer know about you before they make an argument in your court?
Longoria: That they will get an immediate ruling.
TL: In your opinion, what kind of case is best suited for a trial before the court as opposed to a jury trial?
Longoria: Any case that the litigants ask the court to try; a judge should neither be afraid to try a case if asked nor insert himself or herself unnecessarily.
TL: Is there any kind of case or litigant that you have a soft spot for?
Longoria: Anything dealing with children.
TL: Do you enjoy difficult, protracted litigation, or do those types of cases frustrate you?
Longoria: While all cases are equal and deserve their day in court, protracted litigation that is clearly intended to delay or prevent a ruling is not in the best interest of the parties or the justice system in general. However, I enjoy the challenges of cases with difficult or novel legal issues, and it’s often the case that these kinds of cases tend to take more time. There is nothing wrong with that.
TL: What have you learned about being a judge that you didn’t know while you were in private practice?
Longoria: It looks easy to just sit on the bench, but learning about the cases and analyzing their issues is no walk in the park.
TL: What should out-of-town lawyers know about Nueces County jurors before they try a case in your court?
Longoria: That they are very smart and fair jurors who are not daunted by complex issues.
TL: Do you ever shop for groceries at H-E-B?
Longoria: Sure, I’ll shop for groceries wherever I can get the best value.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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