The Dreamer: Chief Justice Cathy Stone

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

Cathy Stone is Chief Justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, having been elected to that position in 2008. Before that, she was an associate justice on the court for 14 years. Justice Stone’s current position on the court is miles away from her childhood. In fact, when she was a child in Biddeford, Maine, one might almost be able to say that she could not have dreamed of being where she is today. But as time would show, she was a dreamer.

When asked if there was someone who had a significant impact on her life, she immediately replied “Lyndon Johnson.” Coming from a Maine native, this statement was intriguing, if not surprising. But one need only hear the rest of her story to understand. In the 1950s and 60s, Justice Stone was one of five daughters of a single mother on welfare who had not completed high school. Her future seemed predictable. But in middle school, she realized she had a choice. She could stay at home and most likely become like her mother, or she could leave and see if she could do something more with her life through education. She left—at age sixteen. She says the “Great Society” programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency enabled her to have a choice and be a dreamer. Through scholarships and low-income loans created for students, she was able to go to college.

Justice Stone attended Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. She majored in foreign affairs—graduating magna cum laude—but as she says laughingly, it would have been more aptly called “foreign affair,” for there she met and married her future husband. Armed with her undergraduate degree and his masters in psychology, they moved to Texas, where she began working at the district attorney’s office in Beaumont, Texas. There, she realized she needed still more education. After considering law school or a PhD in political philosophy, she chose law and was accepted to her first choice—St. Mary’s Law School. Thus began a relationship with San Antonio that has yet to end.

Justice Stone was pregnant with her first child when she began law school. She said she had to sit sideways to fit in the desks. Shortly after exams ended, the first of her three sons arrived. Justice Stone thought she wanted to practice family law, but after clerking for both a family lawyer and a personal injury lawyer, she decided to go to work in personal injury law. She clerked for one year as a briefing attorney for Justices James Baskin and Pete Tijerina, then went to work for a plaintiffs’ personal injury firm. She did all of the firm’s appellate work. At that time, there weren’t many appellate lawyers, so lawyers outside her firm began using her to do their appellate work. She says she primarily was hired by plaintiff’s lawyers. Eventually, she started a solo practice doing mainly appellate law. In 1994, then Governor Ann Richards appointed her to fill a vacancy on the San Antonio court of appeals. She’s been there ever since.

Regarding bench exhibits, oral argument and other topics of interest to appellate lawyers, Justice Stone offered the following suggestions:
  • Bench Exhibits – Bench exhibits usually aren’t very helpful. Typically what she receives in a bench exhibit should have been in the appendix. If an attorney must file a bench exhibit, she would prefer to get them a day or two before argument. She also has seen a few power points used at oral argument, which she has found “completely useless.”

  • Oral Argument – The oral arguments Justice Stone most appreciates seem “more like respectful dialogues between the lawyers and the judges.” She also is very impressed when lawyers address adverse cases up front and in an “intellectually honest manner.” Justice Stone also commented on two things that greatly detract from oral argument. First, she finds it off-putting when a lawyer arguing before her treats the trial judge with disrespect. This greatly detracts from their argument and, rather than helping their argument, hurts it. But even worse is when the lawyer gives a jury argument.

  • Cases of First Impression – When Justice Stone is on a panel interpreting a case of first impression involving a statute, she wants to see the legislative history on the statute. In addition, in some cases, there will be a trend among the states involving similar statutes; she wants to know about the trends in those states. On cases of first impression, Justice Stone says that she “goes where she thinks the law is going.” She’ll try to discern the next logical step in the area.

  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Stone is a “big believer in the jury system.” She believes that jurors “rise above their own capabilities to reach a greater common good.” She also believes in affording the trial judge his or her full measure of discretion.

  • Electronic Briefs – San Antonio has not converted to a purely electronic system yet, but the Court does accept courtesy e-briefs. Justice Stone is hoping to read more on a computer screen. She has an iPad and if she gets CD-Roms, she will use them.
Justice Stone’s favorite part about being a judge is being involved in “the evolution of the law, whether it involves application of the law to the parties, or development of the law on a grander scale.” When she is not judging, Justice Stone may be playing tennis or spending time with one of her three adult sons and her husband. As she said, the “extra-curricular activity” she has enjoyed the most is “being a mom.”