If it weren’t for an inspirational criminal-justice professor, Robb Catalano may never have gone to law school, become a prosecutor and eventually assumed the bench of Tarrant County Criminal District Court No. 3.
Catalano attended St. Edward’s University in Austin because he won a baseball scholarship. He enrolled in a course called Introduction to Criminal Justice just because it sounded interesting. Little did he know that the professor, David Horton, would inspire him to pursue his lifelong career.
Horton was dynamic, loved criminal justice and made the material come alive. After Catalano left class, he wanted to study at home, and he looked forward to the next lecture.
"From that first day in class, I knew this is what I wanted to do," Catalano recalls. He says he took all of Horton’s classes.
Horton didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
Catalano earned a criminal-justice degree in 1992 and went on to earn a law degree at St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1995.
From May to October of 1996 he was an assistant city attorney in the Dallas City Attorney’s Office. He left to become an assistant district attorney in the Tarrant County DA’s Office, a position he held from 1996 to 2000. He took a temporary assignment from 2000 to 2001 as a special assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth.
Then from 2001 to 2006, Catalano was a Fort Worth Municipal Court judge.
"I had a desire, possibly, to run for a higher bench, and I could not run as a sitting municipal court judge," says Catalano, explaining that Texas law prohibits judges from running for another office.
So, Catalano returned to the Tarrant County DA’s Office in 2006. In 2010, he won the Republican Primary for Tarrant County Criminal District Court No. 3 and he ran unopposed in November.
Catalano says he thought being a judge would be rewarding.
"I appreciate what both sides of the bar have to do in criminal law, but I really thought I could probably have the most positive impact as a judge, because as a judge, you get to make the decisions," Catalano says.
Aside from Horton’s knack for teaching, what interested the college-aged Catalano so much about criminal justice? He replies, "These criminal cases, they deal with a person’s liberty. You know, the fact you can be a lawyer — a civil attorney — and fight over money, that didn’t grab me the same way as the fact you had a person’s life in your hands."
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed Catalano some questions about practicing in his court. Here are his answers, edited for style and length.
Tarrant County Criminal District Court No. 3
First elected to the bench: 2010
Texas Lawyer: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought, "Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen."
Robb Catalano, judge of the Tarrant County Criminal District Court No. 3:
Early in my first term, I announced a rather lengthy prison sentence on a case set for trial. The defendant promptly fainted and hit his head hard on the ground. My bailiffs had to quickly attend to the defendant who was sprawled out on the floor, medics were called, the people in the gallery were unnerved and the lawyers didn’t quite know how to react. It was a very chaotic scene. I did not expect to see a case unravel in my courtroom so rapidly. It was an early illustration of how the results of criminal cases in district court affect all people involved. This was one court proceeding I will not soon forget.
TL: Do you have any courtroom formalities that you prefer to follow exactly?
Catalano: As for courtroom formalities, I prefer that lawyers stand when addressing the court, the jury panel, when making objections, and asking permission to approach the bench, court reporter or witness stand. I require that attorneys be on time to docket call and to contact the court beforehand if they are going to be late to court. I also require all lawyers practicing in my court to be familiar with the local rules that apply in Tarrant County.
. . .
TL: What was the most effective technique you saw an attorney use in your courtroom?
Catalano: Many times you will see attorneys raise their voice and almost yell to make a point with the jury or highlight their argument. However, if used properly, I’ve seen the jury’s attention become especially [piqued] when a lawyer speaks in a hushed tone to underline an important issue. Also, the more you speak to juries like real people, the more they will do what you want them to. Do not use lawyer jargon with jurors and most importantly do not be condescending, that will backfire with juries every time!
TL: Considering lessons you’ve learned after talking with juries post-trial, what lesson is the most important for lawyers to know?
Catalano: Lawyers need to know that jurors are very perceptive and pick up on things that you may not be focusing on. The way lawyers speak to court staff, their clients, witnesses and the judge are all being watched by the jury before and during trial. I would also remind lawyers that, "brevity is the key to wit." Jurors are very time conscious and don’t like to feel that the court or the lawyers are wasting their time. The more prepared the lawyers are prior to trial, the less time the jury has to be out in the hall or jury room waiting. Handle matters that need to be heard outside the presence of the jury prior to trial to limit juror down time. Be efficient and direct with your case presentation, this will help you tremendously in the eyes of the jury.
"Approach the Bench" is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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