Chief Justice Brian Quinn: "A Purposeful Life"

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

Not many people can point to one event that shaped the rest of their life. Chief Justice Brian Quinn of the Amarillo Court of Appeals can. He was in 8th grade running the last leg of the 880 yard medley relay for his school team. With his average height and trim build, track star is not what immediately comes to mind when one sees Justice Quinn. Nonetheless, there he was on the track field. Just before he began his part of the race, he said a prayer. He asked God to help him and promised that if he did not finish last, he would start going to church. He finished third. And kept his end of the bargain. From that point on, “better things started happening.” He says he can “see the hand of God throughout his life, whether God opened a door that would not have opened otherwise” or something else. As a result, he “does not believe in coincidences.”

Presumably that belief also applies to the circumstances of his birth. He was born in rural New Jersey—literally—in a car on the way to the hospital. And according to lore, not only was he born in the car, he also fell out of it at birth. After this shaky beginning, things got better when his father left the army and the family returned to El Paso, Texas, his mother’s home town.

Not long after his fateful run, Justice Quinn decided to go to law school as a result of a high school civics class. His teacher showed a film about the First Amendment, which involved a Nazi setting up a soap box in the middle of a Jewish area and extolling the virtues of Nazism. The question to the students was whether the person had the right to do this. He was taken with the idea that lawyers played a role in such important issues.

He obtained a BA in political science from UTEP followed by a Juris Doctor from Texas Tech Law School. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and obtain a post-graduate degree. After law school, he went to Laredo to clerk for U.S. District Judge, George Kazen. He was Judge Kazen’s fourth law clerk, staying for two years. Even when he clerked in the early 80s the court heard many criminal cases. They also heard a number of voting rights cases and civil rights actions against government officials.

After completing his clerkship with Judge Kazen, Justice Quinn returned to Lubbock to join McWhorter, Cobb & Johnson, where he tried to focus on appellate law. He says he was known as an “egghead” and a “library lawyer.” He worked mainly on school district, voting rights, and FDIC cases. His trial work in those days was mainly second chair.

In 1994 Justice Quinn ran for a spot on the Amarillo Court of Appeals. He says he “just felt it was time to do it”; he had “always wanted to be a judge.” He was elected in 1994 and in 2006 was appointed Chief Justice of the court, replacing Chief Justice Phil Johnson who was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Amarillo Court of Appeals has four justices. All four justices sit weekly on rotating panels. Chief Justice Quinn had the following suggestions for lawyers regarding bench exhibits, oral argument, cases of first impression, and other issues relevant to appellate lawyers.
  • Bench Exhibits – Justice Quinn says they do not receive bench exhibits often, but when they do, the exhibits are helpful. They tend to receive them in cases of interpretation involving statutes, wills, or contracts. On occasion, lawyers have used electronic visuals, but invariably these are ineffective because the lawyers “lose time fiddling with the equipment.”

  • Oral Arguments – The most effective arguments occur when the lawyer is prepared and admits the faults of his case. This is “helpful because it builds credibility.” “The lawyer may not win that time but it helps them down the line.” The least effective argument is when a lawyer dodges questions. This hurts them in two ways. First, it hurts their credibility and causes the judges to wonder whether they can trust the lawyer’s argument. As when a lawyer answers the tough questions, dodging questions affects the lawyer’s credibility even after the argument is done. The justices remember lawyers who are not completely straightforward with them and “won’t trust the lawyer as much.” When a lawyer dodges questions it also hurts his position because it irritates the justices and their staff “who then have to do their job for them.”

  • Cases of First Impression – In cases of first impression, Justice Quinn tries to find analogous law for guidance and will look to other states. If a statute is involved, Justice Quinn likes to see the legislative history. When confronted with a new cause of action, his job is relatively easy. He is “not there to create law.”

  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Quinn believes that “the Legislature should be the primary creator of the law. “As a judge, [his] job is to interpret the law.” When he encounters a case in which he wants to do one thing but the law requires him to do another, he follows the law.

  • What he most likes about being a judge – “The jigsaw puzzle. The intellectual challenge. The unique case that comes up and getting the right answer.”
Justice Quinn reads all of his briefs on his iPad. He doesn’t read hard copies of the briefs at all. He finds that he reads briefs on the computer faster than on a hard copy—“maybe because of the larger print.”

All of Chief Justice Quinn’s hobbies are motorcycle related. He collects and repairs old motorcycles and also has built custom motorcycles. He finds it intellectually stimulating, but also imaginative and very physical. In college Justice Quinn was a mechanic. He also loves muscle cars, as evidenced by the 1976 Firebird he owns. He says he “likes the rumble of its engine.”

Justice Quinn lives in Lubbock and commutes to Amarillo, where the court sits.