Collision With Destiny: Justice Sherry Radack

by Hon. Wanda Fowler (Ret.), Wright Brown & Close, LLP

Sherry Radack is Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals and, soon, she will be chief of two other groups. This year she will chair the Council of Chief Justices, comprised of the Chief Justices of the Courts of Appeals in Texas. In years when the Legislature meets, the Chair of the Council represents all of the Texas Courts of Appeals before the Legislature. Her primary purpose will be to work with the Legislature on the budgets for the courts of appeals. It is an exhausting job requiring patience, persistence, diplomacy, and maybe a little bit of arm-twisting here and there.

In November of 2011 Chief Justice Radack will become President of the Council for Chief Judges of the State Court of Appeals. An arm of the National Center for State Courts, this organization is comprised of the Chief Judges of the state courts of appeals. Justice Radack explained that its purpose is primarily educational. “Chief Judges have common problems administering their courts, [preparing] budgets, and [dealing with] their Legislatures,” she says.

This all makes it sound as if Justice Radack has been a judge for years. She has, but probably not as long as you think. In fact, she might not have been a lawyer but for a collision with destiny—literally.

Justice Radack was born in Houston, graduated from Bellaire High School, and from Rice University with a degree in foreign languages—primarily in French and Spanish. She began teaching French, Spanish, and sometimes German in middle school in the Alief School District—at that time one of the best districts. As she says, she taught middle school because she was “too young to teach high school.” In the meantime, she married her high school sweetheart, Steve Radack, and had four boys. After she had the boys, she stopped teaching, but at some point she and her husband began several small businesses; they owned several lighting stores and had the Famous Amos Chocolate Chips kiosk in the Galleria before the company went national.

This might have been “all she wrote” for Justice Radack and the appellate section. But, in 1986, with four boys between the ages of 9 and 2, she had a severely debilitating car accident. She was in physical therapy and speech therapy for a year. She had to relearn how to speak; she also was left with an oral comprehension deficit and a gap in math skills. To regain these skills she spent hundreds of hours on computer programs. Her therapists suggested that she study SAT materials and that she study for and take the GRE or the LSAT as a tool to improve her language and math skills. Had the GRE not been so heavily math oriented, she says she would have been a speech pathologist because it so profoundly affected her life. Instead, she took the LSAT—and did very well. And thus began her law career.

She attended the University of Houston Law School. There, she would tape the lectures, type them each night, and then read them. Small wonder she was a top student. Upon graduating in 1991 she began her practice at Bracewell & Patterson (the predecessor to Bracewell & Giuliani). She was elected a district judge in 1998 and took office in 1999. In 2001, she was appointed to the First Court of Appeals as an associate Justice and in 2002 was appointed Chief Justice.

When asked what she likes most about her job, she said that she feels like she’s “working on a puzzle that she has to get right.” “Every day I learn something new.”

Justice Radack also had some useful comments on legal issues that might interest readers:
  • Bench briefs – Usually they’re not that helpful for argument because the parties give them to the justices just before argument begins. To be assimilated for argument they really should be filed a week beforehand. Chronologies can often be very helpful.

  • Oral Arguments – Justice Radack was unable to say which arguments were the best and why. Generally, “it is not so much what you say”—at that point they know your case as well as you do (or better)—“but how you say it.” “The best oral arguments are like a good conversation with give and take, and not with the lawyer simply trying to get in all his points.” She always begins arguments by telling the lawyers what, in her view, is the most important issue and asking them to address it.

  • Cases of First Impression – Cases of first impression she approaches just like other cases: she looks at the law and then applies the principles from the law. She always looks at any relevant law from other states.

  • Judicial Philosophy – Her court is an error correcting court and the judges on it are supposed to follow the law. In addition, having been a trial judge, she has the utmost reverence for juries. She presided over 100 trials and saw how hard the jurors worked to “get it right.” As a result, she does “not like to disturb jury verdicts.So what about Justice Radack’s personal life?
When she is not judging she loves to read history. Oh, and she also has 1200 orchid plants she keeps in two greenhouses. At any given time as many as 120 orchids might be blooming.

Justice Radack recently was re-elected to the Court for a six-year term.