Chief Justice David Wellington Chew: "A Public Service Family"

by J. Stephen Barrick, Hicks Thomas LLP

El Paso is closer to San Diego than to Houston, and is in a different time zone than both. But it is home to Texas’s Eighth Court of Appeals and Chief Justice David Wellington Chew.

For Justice Chew, public service runs in the family. His father, Wellington Yee Chew, who immigrated to the United States through Mexico as a small child and earned his citizenship by serving in World War II, was one of the first Chinese-American lawyers in Texas and became a highly respected lawyer and civic leader in El Paso. Justice Chew himself, who was born and raised in El Paso, is a longtime attorney and jurist in El Paso who also served a term on the El Paso City Council. And Justice Chew’s two sisters – Linda Chew and Patricia Chew – are the presiding judges of the 327th District Court and Probate Court No. 1 of El Paso. (Justice Chew recuses when their orders and judgments are before the Court of Appeals.)

After briefly attending the University of Texas at El Paso, Justice Chew accepted an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, drawing inspiration from one of his boyhood idols, Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy while playing football for Navy. Upon graduating, Justice Chew served as a Surface Warfare officer in the Navy and eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander. While in the Navy, Justice Chew also served as Admiral’s Aide before leaving to attend law school at SMU. Upon graduating in 1978, Justice Chew joined the El Paso law firm that his father founded and practiced mostly immigration and nationality law for 16 years, often before the Board of Immigration Appeals.

In 1994, Justice Chew ran as a Democrat in a crowded race for an open seat on the Court of Appeals and won. He took office in 1995 as one of the first Asian-American appellate justices in Texas, and he has never since been contested in a judicial race. In 2006, Governor Rick Perry appointed Justice Chew to succeed Hon. Richard Barajas as Chief Justice. When asked what he likes most about being an appellate justice, Justice Chew refers to the scholarly nature of the job. He enjoys studying and writing on the law and feels that it better suits his temperament than private practice.

The Eighth Court of Appeals hears civil and criminal appeals from 17 West Texas counties. In addition, the Court is a transferee court for docket equalization, receiving cases mostly from Fort Worth and San Antonio. The Court has only three justices, so it is usually easy to predict who will be on the panel. Cases are randomly assigned to a justice about 90 days prior to argument or submission, and the Court’s staff generally prepares a bench memo and orally presents it to the panel shortly before submission or argument.

For cases being argued before the Eighth Court of Appeals, Justice Chew provides the following insights:

  • Bench Exhibits – The Court generally allows the parties to use bench exhibits and presentations as they like, but in most cases the appendix to the briefs should be sufficient. Blow-ups can be useful for illustrating complex relationships or time lines, but not to highlight evidence or cases. PowerPoint presentations are usually a distraction and are not very helpful.

  • Oral Argument – The Court nearly always permits oral argument when a party has requested it, which sometimes results in oral arguments that are useless or awkward. Justice Chew gave an example where the Court clearly lacked jurisdiction and there was very little to discuss. Lawyers who argue their case as if they are presenting it to a jury are not effective. Moreover, the skills that appellate specialists bring are often a welcome relief.

  • Cases of First Impression – Justice Chew does not handle cases of first impression differently but enjoys the opportunity to write on a clean slate and make new law.

  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Chew characterizes his judicial philosophy as “relatively liberal,” but he does not believe there is much room for liberalism on the appellate bench. He believes that the law and precedent must be followed but is relatively permissive on matters of procedure.

  • Electronic Briefs – Justice Chew is not a fan of electronic filing and computerized legal research and personally does not find eBriefs to be useful. He notes, however, that there are others on his Court who find them useful.

In 2002, the Asian Pacific Interest Section of the State Bar of Texas established an award in Justice Chew’s honor. Each year, the Justice David Wellington Chew Award is presented to a member of the bar to recognize his or her contributions to the Asian-Pacific legal community.

Justice Chew is married to Mandy Chew, and they have a son, Wellington Montgomery Chew, who is a graduate of St. Edwards University.

When asked what he would most like to do if he were not judging, Justice Chew states that he would like to return to the sea, referring back to his days as a Naval Officer.