Chief Justice Steve McKeithen: "The Gentleman Generalist"

by J. Stephen Barrick, Hicks Thomas LLP

The most westerly county in Texas’s most easterly appellate district – the Ninth Court of Appeals in Beaumont – is Montgomery County, which originates much of the court’s caseload and is the home of its current Chief Justice, Steve McKeithen.

Justice McKeithen was first elected in 2002 – the first Republican to defeat an incumbent Democrat for a seat on the Beaumont Court of Appeals. Justice McKeithen lives in Conroe and commutes to work in Beaumont.

The son of a machinist, Justice McKeithen is the first in his family to finish high school. After graduation, he promptly married his high school sweetheart, Sherry, who is now an eighth-grade math teacher. Justice McKeithen attended the University of Houston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. After graduation he worked for Gates Rubber Company as a field representative.

Always knowing that he eventually wanted to become a lawyer and then a judge, Justice McKeithen went back to school and, in 1984, earned his J.D. from South Texas College of Law. He then opened his own general civil practice in Houston, providing legal services for everything from estate planning to litigation.

In 1988, Justice McKeithen joined the Montgomery County Attorney’s office and for two years prosecuted criminal cases in the County Courts at Law in Montgomery County. He then moved to the Civil Division, representing the County in civil actions in state and federal trial and appellate courts. Justice McKeithen was promoted to Civil Division Chief in 1993 and served in that capacity for over five years before returning to private practice, again as a general civil practitioner.

In 2002, the opportunity presented itself for Justice McKeithen to realize his dream of becoming a judge and he ran for Chief Justice of the Beaumont Court of Appeals and won. He subsequently won reelection in 2008.

As Chief Justice, Justice McKeithen has helped lower what had been a relatively high reversal rate for the Beaumont Court of Appeals. He was also successful in lobbying the legislature to add a fourth justice to the court, which has one of the highest case loads per justice in the state.

The Beaumont Court has four justices who sit weekly on rotating panels. Cases filed in the court are assigned to a justice and to a panel at intake. Historically, a slight majority of the court’s cases were civil, but in recent years the court’s caseload has become nearly two-thirds criminal. Justice McKeithen attributes this trend to tort reform, the economy, and other factors.

Oral argument in the Beaumont court is not granted in the majority of cases but the court will sometimes grant oral argument on the motion of one of the parties, even after it was initially denied. The court rarely has a bench memorandum or opinion in draft before oral argument, which means that oral argument is generally scheduled relatively soon after briefing is complete.

For counsel with appeals before the Beaumont Court of Appeals, Chief Justice McKeithen had the following suggestions:
  • Bench Exhibits – The court accepts bench exhibits that are filed and exchanged in advance. Justice McKeithen noted that bench exhibits are not helpful in all cases. In cases where they are useful, he finds poster boards and handouts more helpful than PowerPoint presentations.

  • Oral Arguments – Justice McKeithen emphasized that counsel should maintain eye contact with the panel, answer questions directly, avoid argument that simply restates the arguments in the brief, and avoid trying to be someone you are not. He said it is obvious to the court when counsel is putting on a show, or does not know the answer to a question, or is avoiding a weakness in the case. A frank and honest discussion of the issues is always the most effective.

  • Cases of First Impression – Justice McKeithen believes that true cases of first impression are very rare. In cases involving application of a statute, he focuses on the language of the statute itself. In cases involving common law issues, Justice McKeithen will consider cases from other contexts and jurisdictions and will attempt to follow accepted precedent as much as possible.

  • Electronic Briefs – the Beaumont Court of Appeals has not yet adopted electronic filing but tentatively plans to do so in November 2011. Justice McKeithen stated that he often reads briefs on a computer and he finds hyperlinked e-briefs useful but noted that e-briefs can be overdone with too many hyperlinks.
Chief Justice McKeithen and his wife have recently become empty nesters. Their son, Seth, is a student at the University of Texas and their daughter, Sarah, is a respiratory therapist in Conroe.