Judge Mario Ramirez grew up feeling he needed to give back to his community. It’s a drive that came from his father.
The elder Mario Ramirez was a well-known doctor in South Texas who had a busy medical practice, operated a private hospital and at one time served as Starr County judge, among other noteworthy positions.
“He had a very strong sense of duty toward the people in Starr County. . . . He instilled in all his kids a sense of responsibility toward the community,” Ramirez says of his father.
The encouragement worked: Ramirez has been the judge of Hidalgo County’s 332nd District Court since 1984. Among his siblings, there are two doctors, a lawyer and a school administrator.
“They all, in one way or another, serve the public,” notes Ramirez. “I wanted to be a doctor at one time. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. College chemistry persuaded me otherwise.”
Instead, Ramirez earned his undergraduate degree in government from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1972. Two years later, in December 1974, he earned his law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, graduating early by taking courses through the summers.
“I’ve always liked to argue and liked to present the point of view I thought was correct. Being a lawyer was right down that alley,” explains Ramirez, noting that his dad encouraged all his kids to go to medical school, “but, when he realized I just didn’t want to do it, he was cool with it. . . . As long as we all got educations, as long as we were all secure in what we were doing, it was OK with him.”
From 1975 to 1976, Ramirez worked as a child-support attorney at the Department of Public Welfare in Laredo. He then entered private practice at Rodriguez & Ramirez, working as a partner in the firm until 1980. From 1976 to 1980, Ramirez also was an assistant municipal judge in McAllen.
In 1980, the Hidalgo County commissioners court appointed Ramirez to fill a vacancy on Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 2, a position he held until 1981.
“I was just starting to have children when the county court became available. . . . I wanted to spend time with the kids,” he says.
But one year later, in 1981, Ramirez returned to private practice as an associate with Yzaguirre & Chapa in McAllen. He worked there for less than a year before then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements appointed him to serve on the 93rd District Court.
Ramirez lost re-election for that bench, but Clements in 1983 appointed him to fill the vacant 332nd District Court, and this time, Ramirez won election for the bench in 1984.
He says he has “developed a sense of duty and a sense of accomplishment from being a judge and being able to affect people’s lives.”
And he says he traces that “sense of duty” back to his dad.
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed Ramirez some questions about practicing in his courtroom. His answers are below, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: Considering lessons you’ve learned after talking with juries post-trial, what lesson is the most important for lawyers to know?
Judge Mario Ramirez, 332nd District Court, Edinburg: I think jurors like presentations that are straightforward. They can tell when a lawyer is trying to impress themselves, and can usually see through witnesses that are not being truthful. I can read juries pretty effectively now and can tell by looking what they like and don’t like. They love skilled lawyers.
TL: About how many trials do you hear annually? If you’ve noticed any change in the numbers over the years, what is it?
Ramirez: We try eight to 12 cases a year; the number has remained pretty constant over the years. I think many more cases are being filed in county court now because the wait time is shorter and the number of jurors is smaller.
TL: What’s a typical disposition rate, or time from filing to trial, for a case?
Ramirez: The disposition time for a case depends on the type of case, of course. A murder case can take well over a year. . . . A regular criminal case takes between three and four months to dispose. A large civil case can take up to two years to get ready and try.
TL: If a lawyer were practicing in your jurisdiction for the first time, what would he need to know about your court’s unique procedures to ensure his case progressed efficiently?
Ramirez: We have mandatory [alternative dispute resolution]. Also if there is delay in exchanging information, a quick hearing can usually put a stop to it. Court is always available for resolution, but of course, working things out by counsel is always appreciated.
TL: What are the differences you expect from counsel arguing before a jury versus before you alone?
Ramirez: I’ve been a judge for over 30 years. I don’t need histrionics, a thousand charts, an ELMO briefing or overhead projection to listen to a simple argument. Be concise and get to the point. On the other hand, I appreciate a heartfelt final argument and terse cross-examination in front of a jury.
TL: What are the sneakiest tricks you have seen lawyers try to commit in your courtroom?
Ramirez: Too many to mention, really. I have great respect for the profession and do not want to perpetuate the antics of an unethical few and participate in the demeaning of the profession.
TL: What was the most effective technique you saw counsel deploy in your courtroom?
Ramirez: I have seen the effective use of computer-generated graphics in final argument. I have witnessed withering cross-examination. There is no substitute for preparation. The best presentation is always a well-prepared, to-the-point one. A jury knows when a lawyer is trying to impress himself or doesn’t have enough confidence to know when to quit. When in doubt, I always turn to the Grateful Dead, who said it best: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you got nothing new to say.”
TL: What dangers has the growth of the online world led to in your courtroom?
Ramirez: It is very dangerous for a juror to be able to Google important facts and to influence other jurors. I don’t know how to stop it.
TL: What do you know now about being a judge that you didn’t know before?
Ramirez: Well, I’ve been a judge for a long time now. Judges feel every decision they make, and at least for me, it is difficult to leave those decisions at the office. It is anguishing to take people’s lives literally and figuratively. A calm demeanor belies a tense interior.
TL: After being a judge, how would you change your practice if you were to become a working attorney again?
Ramirez: What I really know now is procedure and evidence and how to read a juror. I think I would turn to mediation, trial work and jury selection, were I to go back into practice.