Consistently Excellent: Chief Justice J. Woodfin "Woodie" Jones

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

J. Woodfin “Woodie” Jones is Chief Justice of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, a seat he was elected to in 2008. This is not his first time as a Justice on the Court. He was elected to the Court in 1988 and served until the end of 2000, when he lost his bid for re-election. Ironically, that same year, he received the highest rating of any Travis County judge. That performance on the bar poll was not surprising, for Justice Jones has been consistently excellent throughout his life. One might almost say he has been so consistently excellent, it is boring. But to those who know him, “boring” would not come to mind—friendly, energetic, intelligent, and empathetic maybe, but not boring. Justice Jones is one of those people who always has a smile for those he greets. In fact, he is so nice, that once, before a CLE presentation for which he was critiquing an oral argument, he was told that the presentation would be boring if he acted like he normally does and was nice to the lawyers. He did his best.

But back to the consistently excellent part. Justice Jones began his consistently excellent path early. He graduated near the top of his high school class and attended Plan II at the University of Texas, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa. He decided to go to law school his junior year and attended U.T. When he initially began to consider law as a profession, he assumed he would be a criminal lawyer like his father, but pretty early he realized that he wasn’t cut out to practice criminal law. Instead, he began his law career as a briefing attorney for Chief Justice Curtiss Brown on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. As he said, he “loved that job”; it “planted the seed in his mind” for becoming an appellate judge himself one day. He then spent five years working at one of Houston’s top law firms, Bracewell & Patterson, and had a successful career there, including working with Kelly Frels on a high profile school-desegregation case. Finding himself longing for his hometown, and thinking he could return on his own terms after the successes in Houston (an accurate assumption), he returned to Austin. Then he began his successful trek into politics. He became involved in bar activities, working his way up to the Presidency of the Austin Bar Association. In the meantime, he also set his sights on a spot on the Austin Court of Appeals. He ran in 1988 and won the Democratic primary against the incumbent. There was no Republican candidate, so he was assured of a position on the court beginning in January. But the Democratic incumbent whom he had defeated ran into trouble and left office in August. Justice Jones asked the Republican Governor, Bill Clements, to appoint him to the now vacant seat. Reviewing Justice Jones’ excellent history, Governor Clements did just that.

Justice Jones is proud of this bipartisan beginning and feels strongly that judges should do everything in their power to set aside their partisan differences and work together. On his court, this is not just idealistic talk, for unlike some courts, his is split with two Democrats and four Republicans.

As noted earlier, politics did interrupt his time on the court, with his defeat in 2003. But he used his break to continue in his excellent ways. He became a partner at Scott, Douglass, & McConnico for two years, helped found his own appellate boutique—Alexander, Dubose Jones & Townsend—became Board certified in Civil Appellate Law, and was named a Super Lawyer in Appellate Law for four years. But Justice Jones knew he was not done being a judge. He ran for, and was elected to, the Chief Justice spot on the Third Court of Appeals in 2008.

As you would expect from someone who’s been on the court so long, Justice Jones has some insights into specific issues:
  • Bench Exhibits – Bench exhibits can be very useful. Justice Jones strongly suggests handouts rather than posters.

  • Oral Argument – The most effective – One argument has stood out in all his years on the bench, and it probably happened his first year on the bench. A lawyer arguing, to the court conceded that a particular issue was a weak part of his case but he explained that his client still should win. As Justice Jones explained, “Credibility is a vital part of what a lawyer has to sell. There is no better way to enhance your credibility than by being candid.”

  • Least Effective Argument – Again during his first year on the bench, a law firm apparently knew it had a weak case so it sent a very young lawyer to argue the case. The brief for the party omitted the Prayer section of the brief. While the young lawyer was arguing the Chief Justice flipped to the back of the brief to ascertain what relief the party was asking. When he noticed there was no prayer, he held up the brief and said “Counsel, you don’t have a prayer.” The young lawyer replied, “I know judge, but I’m doing the best I can.”

  • Cases of First Impression – Justice Jones doesn’t handle cases of first impression differently, but he often finds himself looking for more background on the issues so that he understands the broader context within which the issues are presented. Often he will do additional research to understand the history of the area of law or to grasp the policy issues. If it’s a statutory construction question, he wants to know more about the history of the statute or the problem the statute was designed to fix.

  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Jones states that when he first ran, Raul Gonzales also was running and would tell the story of a man who came up to him complaining saying, “You know the problem with you judge is that you’ll rule for the plaintiff in one case and the defendant in another case. You ain’t got no judicial philosophy.” That, says Justice Jones, is how he’d describe himself—“middle of the road.” He approaches each case with the desire that the losing party is satisfied that he “got a fair shake and a thorough review of the issues.”

  • Electronic Briefs – In January the court will begin accepting electronic filings. For oral argument he still likes to have the written briefs in front of him to mark. For non-argument cases he is trying to read the briefs on the computer.

Justice Jones’s favorite part about being a judge is “the intellectual challenge of finding the answer that makes the most sense.” “It’s like solving a puzzle.” When Justice Jones is not judging he likes reading (mainly) non-fiction and playing lots of golf. He learned when he was 10, so it takes him back to his childhood. You also can find him as a frequent speaker at CLEs.