Chief Justice Josh Morriss: “Living Up to Expectations”

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

They say history repeats itself, but that is not a saying frequently applied to judges. In the case of Justice Josh Morriss, Chief Justice of the Texarkana Court of Appeals, it is quite apropos. Every day he goes to work he finds his grandfather looking over his shoulder. That is because his grandfather—Isaac Newton Williams—was a justice on the Texarkana Court of Appeals from 1937-1954 and his grandfather’s portrait hangs in the hallway leading to Justice Morriss’s chambers. Justice Morriss says it makes him behave himself. But Justice Morriss likes having his grandfather’s watchful eye on him, for he owes his grandfather a lot—his very existence even. If his grandfather had not moved from their family home in Mt. Pleasant to Texarkana, Justice Morriss’s parents would not have met.

Surprisingly, even with this background, law was not in the picture when Justice Morriss went to college. His father was a businessman and that is what Justice Morriss expected to do. He obtained a BBA and an MBA in finance from SMU. He intended to become a certified financial analyst. But the summer before he started grad school, fate intervened. He worked in the trust department of a bank “and whenever they had an important issue, they always said, ‘Let’s send this to the lawyers.’” That made him realize “the strategic value of being the one people go to for advice when they have problems.” As a result, after getting his MBA at SMU, he attended and graduated from U.T. Law School.

After graduation from law school, Justice Morriss returned to Texarkana where he practiced primarily business law. Most recently before joining the Court, he was a partner with the Texarkana firm of Atchley, Russell, Waldrop & Hlavinka, LLP.

Epiphanies seem to play a role in the big decisions in Justice Morriss’s life. Just as an epiphany moved him into law, an epiphany moved him to become a judge. He was a long time Republican in “yellow-dog Democrat” East Texas. In 2000, the Republican County Chair approached him and asked “What are we going to do about the vacancy on the Texarkana Court of Appeals?” His initial reaction was “Why are you asking me?” But then he started thinking about it. It was something he could afford to do, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized he “was built more for a judicial application than a litigation application.” He realized that “when [he] was involved in litigation, [he] had real trouble picking a side; [he] was built more for evaluating cases from a neutral standpoint rather than a partisan one.”

He decided to apply for an appointment and, in 2002, was appointed Chief Justice. Still, there was no guarantee that he would be elected. No Republican had ever been elected from his district. But he won that first election and has been elected twice more since then.

Texarkana is a three-judge court. The authoring justice for any given case is assigned on a rotating basis. Before argument, the Justices know who the author will be, have a memorandum discussing the case, and have conferred about the case with the attorney assigned to work on it. In the Supreme Court’s efforts to equalize the dockets of the Courts of Appeals, Texarkana is a transferee court, receiving most of its additional cases from Tyler. Texarkana does not have a definite start date for e-filing, but has asked to be moved up on the priority list for court e-filing start dates. Justice Morriss described himself as “computer friendly,” but he “doesn’t read briefs on the computer yet.” The court accepts briefs on disk in addition to a hard copy.

For lawyers about to argue or file a brief in Texarkana, Justice Morriss has the following suggestions:
  • Bench Exhibits – Justice Morriss said that bench exhibits can be very effective. The court usually receives them in high-profile cases. He said the most effective use of a bench exhibit was in a murder conviction based on circumstantial evidence. On the evening of the event, the defendant traveled in three different counties. The murder happened in one location, the weapon was found in another, and the defendant ended up in the third county later in the evening. The district attorney was able to track the defendant’s movements and location by his cell phone calls, which showed when he visited all three places and showed him to be near the place of the murders around the time of the murders. The DA gave the justices an exhibit listing the phone calls, their locations, and the time of the calls.

  • Oral Arguments – The least effective arguments usually involve a lawyer making a jury argument. In one case a lawyer repeatedly said “I think this,” or “I think that,” rather than discussing the law. The most effective argument is the “courageous” one, when the lawyer, usually an experienced appellate lawyer, is willing to “cut to the chase” and says, “Here is the issue. If you agree with me, I win; if you do not agree with me, I lose. But let’s talk about it.”

  • Cases of First Impression – When he has a case of first impression or an issue that has two opposing authorities, he “works them very hard.” He will analyze them to see which one fits the situation better. For example, in one appeal they were confronted with a very high bond on a multiple murder conviction. They took all the data points they could find —various factors that dictate a higher or lower bond—and put them into a spread sheet. This helped them decide to “trim the bond a little.” In a case of first impression, he also looks at any public policies that are relevant.

  • Judicial Philosophy – In a phrase, his philosophy could be described as “exercising restraint.” As he said, “If we have a safe harbor, let’s use it.”
When asked what he likes most about being a judge, Justice Morriss said that he had spent most of his adult life saying “Hurry! Hurry! Let’s get it out!” He says, “It is a pleasure to be in a situation to take your time and get it right.” When asked what he likes to do when he is not judging, Justice Morriss described himself as “a musical theater nut.” He is one of the founders of a theater group in the Texarkana area, called Texarkana Repertory Company, which produces four shows a year. He has been doing this since high school, so if you name a well-known musical, he probably has had a major role in it—Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady; Woody in Finian’s Rainbow; Curly in Oklahoma!; Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. These days he does less acting and more producing and managing. He also has collaborated with friends to write a musical comedy about Texarkana along the lines of Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney’s Let’s Do a Show. And since 1995, Justice Morriss has portrayed President George Washington in the historically accurate A Standing Miracle, a show he researched and wrote and presents to area organizations and groups.

In closing, Justice Morriss said that three things are central to, and impact, his operating style. First, his faith in Christ; he considers his oath of office sacred, making him accountable not only to the State of Texas but to God. Second, he is “one of those who will spend his life trying to live up to his family name cultivated by his parents”; as he said, “they have a strong performance streak.” Third, when he was practicing, it was clear which judges were impartial and which ones weren’t; the ones that weren’t always "stuck in his craw.” He found that when a case was getting started, the first question people often would ask—to find out if they had some advantage—was, “Who’s the judge?” It gave him the impression that most people feel that it is who you know that counts, not what the law says. He would say to himself, “The system ought to be better than that.” Now he is making sure the system is better than that.