Two, six, nine, 13, 14 and 16: Those numbers mean everything to Judge Steve Burgess.
“That’s what my life is about,” he says about his six children, the youngest a toddler, the oldest a recently licensed driver.
Before arriving in Denton County’s 158th District Court, Burgess gets kids ready and drops them off at school. After a full day presiding over his general-jurisdiction bench, his work’s not done when he gets home.
“Usually when I pull up outside, my two middle daughters . . . they’ll run up and give me hugs,” says Burgess, adding, “It’s really wonderful when a child runs up and jumps in your arms.”
After dinner, homework duty begins — Burgess tutors his middle and elementary schoolers in math, English and reading. On weekends, he and his wife go to multiple stores to load up on food and supplies, spending $400 to $500 each week.
“I don’t know how we do it . . . . The boys, especially if it’s food they like, they’ll eat, eat, eat, then eat some more,” Burgess jokes.
The daily piles of laundry also blow his mind. An entire household’s worth of sheets, towels and clothes add up to four or five loads every day.
“I’m lucky because at least I get to go to work. My wife is the one staying here . . . . It’s got to be the toughest, most stressful work — period — staying home and raising kids,” he says.
Burgess earned an undergraduate degree in accounting from California State University, Long Beach, in 1988. From 1988 to 1991 he worked in accounting at an aerospace company, and then at his own firm.
Initially, Burgess wanted to become a lawyer because he wanted to enter politics like his father, who served as a city councilman.
“He’s not an attorney, but I think, at that time, a lot of the folks I saw entering public service at that level were attorneys,” says Burgess.
He changed his mind about politics but still attended Loyola Law School Los Angeles, earning his law degree in 1994. While studying for the Texas Bar Exam, Burgess did temporary accounting work and worked within his family’s bail bond business.
In 1996, Burgess became an associate at William Trantham & Associates in Dallas. He left that same year to start a solo practice, mostly practicing criminal-defense law. Burgess won election to the 158th District Court in 2010 and assumed the bench in 2011.
“I wanted to effectuate a positive change, more than anything,” Burgess says of his decision to run for election. He wanted to bring a “better attitude” to the bench and create a “positive experience” for attorneys, litigants, criminal defendants and jurors, Burgess says.
“I’m trying to, at least in my tiny part of the world, just make it a better place,” he says.
At home, Burgess’ corner of the world can be filled with fun. He and his children enjoy playing board games and watching favorite shows. Burgess even lets his teenage boys shoot at him.
They play with Airsoft Guns, which shoot 10 to 20 plastic pellets per second traveling up to 450 feet per second. While it’s a step down from paint ball, Airsoft bullets can still bruise or draw blood. For safety, the Burgesses wear protective gear and adopt rules like agreeing to stop firing after a player is hit.
“The boys love doing it. It gives them a chance to shoot at me,” says Burgess, laughing.
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed Judge Burgess some questions about practicing in his courtroom. Here are his answers, edited for style and length.
Judge Steve Burgess
158th District Court in Denton
First elected to the bench: 2012
Texas Lawyer: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought, “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”
158th District Judge Steve Burgess: It is not necessarily a single instance or moment so much as the ongoing realization that I am boring. I have had presented for admission photographs in family law cases that show men in women’s lingerie, women and men walking their neighborhood nude and presumably drunk, and Facebook photographs of litigants using drugs. I am boring, and I intend to stay that way.
TL: If a lawyer were practicing in your jurisdiction for the first time, what would he need to know about your court’s internal operating procedures to ensure his case progressed efficiently?
Burgess: Always clear ALL settings through my court administrator, and treat her as you would me. My court administrator is my proxy out front, and I always listen to her.
TL: What was the single most significant motivating event that made you want to serve as a judge?
Burgess: My father’s example of public service is the most significant motivating “event” or factor. I enjoy helping people with their problems. Being on the bench allows me to help folks out on a larger scale than practicing as an attorney.
TL: Do you have any courtroom formalities that you prefer to follow exactly?
Burgess: I don’t know if you can call it a formality, but I like folks to speak at a reasonable pace, loud and clear. I need a reasonable pace so that my court reporter can keep up without having to speak up. I need loud and clear so that everyone can hear what is being said.
TL: How can lawyers get on your good side?
Burgess: Lawyers can get and stay on my good side by being respectful to myself and others. I don’t like being spoken over or shouted at. Nobody likes that.
TL: What lawyer courtroom habits irritate you?
Burgess: Sidebar comments! Don’t disrespect opposing counsel, witnesses or litigants.
TL: What do you know now about being a judge that you didn’t know before?
Burgess: On a heavy note, it can be a little isolating. I imagine it is a little like coming into a bunch of money. You don’t always know everyone’s motives. On a lighter note, I know to be careful about what restaurants I frequent. It is surprising the number of people I see in front of me that I recognize.
TL: After being a judge, how would you change your practice if you were to become a working attorney again?
Burgess: I would likely be more aggressive and more prepared as an attorney. Also, I would be more tech savvy. The multitude and breadth of apps are simply amazing and they are underutilized.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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