Ask 99th District Judge William C. Sowder if a district attorney has more power than a district judge, and he’ll tell you that the prosecutor wins that battle. Sowder makes that evaluation even though he relinquished his position as the top prosecutor in Lubbock County, trading it in for a spot on the district court bench.
“The DA exerts more power, but you can stay in that top position too long,” says Sowder, who served as DA just short of 11 years.
Appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005 and then elected to it in 2008, Sowder has, by his own estimation, grown on the judicial job. “It was a little uneasy going from criminal to civil law. But soon you realize civil board certified lawyers are exactly who you want to have in court.” He says those lawyers come in prepared, informed and generally polite.
When he graduated from Texas A&M University in engineering, Sowder was skeptical that the law should be his life. But because his dad was a lawyer, he decided to test the waters. He went to Baylor Law School in Waco and took his first job as an assistant district attorney for Lubbock County after graduation.
Judging runs in the Sowder family. Former Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, had appointed the elder Sowder, who his son describes as a Democrat, as a district judge. But the elder Sowder only served for a partial term, losing in the next election to a Republican, as the political tide turned statewide. Sowder has run as a Republican since his first successful campaign for DA in 1994.
Shortly after his election as judge, Sowder took some time off the bench. In February 2008, Sowder, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, was called to active duty to advise military judges handling cases involving detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He served one year, while visiting judges filled in for him in Lubbock.
At the moment, he says, he doesn’t see a future for himself in an appellate court.
“I don’t have the appellate skill set. Writing and research are not my forte,” Sowder says. What is his strength? “A sense of fairness and a sense of right and wrong,” Sowder says.
Texas Lawyer reporter Miriam Rozen e-mailed questions to Sowder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: Does anything need to be corrected with the current procedures for recusal motions filed to remove judges from state court cases?
Judge William C. Sowder: No. The only thing that needs to change is that every judge should take every recusal motion seriously and handle it in the proper manner. Ignoring it or giving it cursory attention is not the way to give the public confidence in the judicial system.
. . .
TL: What are the differences you expect from counsel arguing before a jury versus before you alone?
Sowder: Not much. I told a recent gathering of attorneys that judges are people, too. We don’t like smart aleck or obnoxious lawyers either. Don’t pander or condescend to us; be passionate and argue the law and facts in a common-sense manner and, most of all, stay away from the words “I” and “me.”
TL: What was the single most significant motivating event that made you want to serve as a judge?
Sowder: I had been the elected district attorney for about 11 years when a bench was vacated, and it was time for me to leave that office. You can stay too long in a political office, especially that one, and I felt it was time to move on to another job that I thought I would really enjoy. I was right.
TL: Do you envision ever practicing again? And, if yes, how would you change your practice as a result of your time on the bench? How will you change your courtroom techniques as a result?
Sowder: You don’t ever know, but I don’t envision practicing again. I would like to be a judge another five years and then go coach linebackers and teach honors government at the high school level. If I did practice again, I would be much more prepared and focused on giving the judge the evidence and law he or she can hang their hat on to rule in my favor. I wish every practicing trial attorney could be a judge for about six months. It would make a world of difference.
TL: What is the severest limitation a judge faces as a result of the ethics code?
Sowder: I don’t see any judicial ethics rule as being severe. Judges should always do the right thing for the right reasons, including avoiding the appearance of impropriety. And I think that, for the most part, Texas judges do a really good job of that. There are always a few in any group that give the rest of the group a bad rap. I am glad that I can use judicial ethics as a reason to not have to raise money for charitable organizations — I hated doing that.
TL: Do you believe a rapport with other judges is important?
Sowder: Yes, for a number of reasons. Since judges have to somewhat pull back socially to avoid appearances of impropriety, it is imperative to have a good rapport with the other judges for your own social sanity. And when the judges have a good working relationship with each other, the system works more efficiently, and the citizens benefit greatly. In our county, among other things, judges cover each other’s trial dockets, share law clerks, discuss cases, develop consistent court procedures when appropriate and tag team the general jury pool duty. I sincerely enjoy working with my fellow Lubbock County judges.
. . .
TL: How much does a counsel’s poor performance influence his or her client’s odds with a jury? And what steps do you take to compensate for poor counsel?
Sowder: Well, you would like to believe that poor performance by counsel would not drastically affect the outcome of the case and the party who is supposed to prevail will prevail, but that is not always the case. I equate a trial with a domino game, and the player with the best dominoes (facts and the law) should win the hand. But this assumes all the players at the domino table have a certain, minimal amount of domino-playing knowledge and skill. However an excellent domino player who [can count] well might win 10-15 percent more cases than an ordinary domino player. If an attorney is not performing up to a minimal acceptable standard, I will talk to that attorney or their supervisor.
TL: What was the moment a counsel made you maddest in your courtroom?
Sowder: I have never really been mad at an attorney in my court. I have been a little disappointed a couple of times but never mad. Two attorneys in my court were behaving in an immature manner, and I sent them to some customized CLE with an experienced Lubbock attorney on how to practice law the “Lubbock way.”
TL: What was the most unexpected but effective technique you saw a counsel deploy in your courtroom?
Sowder: I cannot think of anything that falls into this category.
TL: When a lawyer adopts a courtroom persona that you know is artificial and geared to jury-pleasing, how do you respond?
Sowder: I probably would not respond. Although I think a key to being an effective trial lawyer is to be yourself, I would not interfere with an attorney choosing a different strategy, unless they asked for my opinion on the subject.
TL: What are the three toughest cases over which you have presided and why?
Sowder: My first jury trial to preside over as a judge was a complicated multiparty medical-malpractice case, and it was a difficult transition for me, but I made it through somehow. For sure, the hardest cases I have to preside over are child-custody cases, especially when I am the one that renders the verdict.
TL: What would be your most honest warning for your prospective replacement?
Sowder: I really would have no warnings, just some advice: Be there. Treat attorneys and litigants with respect. Let lawyers try their case. Keep your cool. Use common sense. Make timely decisions. Sign your paperwork in an expedient manner. Be curious about the law. My dad said some judges don’t know the law and are not even curious about it. I try to be at least curious about the law.
TL: How did your wartime experience influence your courtroom procedures and demeanor?
Sowder: I came back from experiencing the military commissions in GTMO with a renewed attitude to do everything I can do to ensure a fair trial for all parties in the cases in my court. I was inspired to do so by observing the military judges do the same thing in the commission cases. Military judges are deeply committed to fair trials.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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