Chief Justice James T. Worthen: Judge, Student, Traveler, Author

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

Not many people can say they’re from Big Sandy, Texas. Fewer still can say they live in Big Sandy and have been to all seven of the world’s continents. But Chief Justice Jim Worthen of the Tyler Court of Appeals, a seventh-generation Texan, can claim both. As you can imagine, traveling has been a big part of his life. But don’t assume that he is just another run-of-the-mill jet setter. He is far from that.

Chief Justice Worthen was born in Conroe and lived there until middle school, but his family moved to Big Sandy (named for an Indian Chief) when he was a teenager. Almost all of his family—his mother, two of his brothers, his sister, and Chief Justice Worthen and his family—still live there on the same road.

Although Big Sandy is not “big,” and could have been considered provincial when Chief Justice Worthen was a teen and a young man, the ideas that sprung from his home were “big” and very unprovincial. He is “from a successful family of entrepreneurs.” His father had the greatest impact on him with the example he set for how to live life. He was a “great businessman and had a strong character. Chief Justice Worthen says he was fortunate to have grown up with a family business; his siblings started and still run a successful chain of health-food stores. His father also had a lasting impact on chief Justice Worthen in another way. The family traveled quite a bit, a love that has remained with him throughout his life. As he says “it broadens one’s perspectives.”

In college he was accepted for a spot on an archaeological dig next to the temple Mount in Jerusalem. The dig was in a layer from “the Herodian period, right before the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.” As an adult, he continued his travels. He’s traveled to over 40 countries—to China twice and Australia three times. In 2003 he and his wife visited their seventh continent—Antarctica—which they had the privilege of seeing through the eyes of the son of the great explorer Sir Edmund Hillary. Being there allowed them to see the life cycle in its entirety, from the krill—one of the smallest forms of life—to the whale, at the top of the food chain.

His mother instilled in him his love for education and learning. Before he graduated from high school, he had read Sir Winston Churchill’s six-volume set on World War II . . . . twice. He graduated with a B.S. degree from the University of Texas at Tyler in 1978, and a J.D. from South Texas College of Law in 1980. Almost twenty years later—while practicing law—he obtained his master of arts in interdisciplinary studies from his undergraduate alma mater. And finally, in 2004—while Chief Justice on the Tyler Court of Appeals—he obtained his masters of law in judicial process from the University of Virginia. He was a member of the final graduating class of the school’s three-year program for judges. His thesis for that program—The Organizational and Structural Development of Intermediate Appellate Courts in Texas 1892–2003—was published in the South Texas Law Journal in 2004.

Chief Justice Worthen’s progression into law was straightforward once he realized that he would make very little money pursuing his first love, sports journalism. He was a political science major, but near the end of college he took a business law class and found it fascinating. He then went to law school and upon graduation from law school in 1980, he began practicing real estate law with Bain and Files in Tyler (which later became Bain, Files, Worthen, and Jarrett, P.C.), but soon much of his client base filed for bankruptcy. Naturally, he followed his clients and became a specialist in bankruptcy law, first representing debtors and then creditors. In 1986 he became board certified in bankruptcy. He says, “a bankruptcy practice is the perfect preparation for being an appellate justice because you have to be a generalist.”

He had always been interested in the intellectual side of the law, including the history of law, but had not considered being an appellate judge until he met with Bill Bass, who was appointed by then Governor White to the Tyler Court of Appeals. Justice Bass suggested that Chief Justice Worthen would enjoy being on the court of appeals. Eleven years later the opportunity presented itself. He decided to run against an incumbent democrat, but unfortunately for him, the incumbent foresaw that democrats would not fare well that election cycle and switched parties. Chief Justice Worthen lost that election but ran again successfully in 1999. In May of 2002, after the primary election, then Chief Justice Leonard Davis was confirmed as a federal district judge for the Eastern District of Texas. The Republican County Chairs in the 18 counties that comprise the Tyler court’s judicial district nominated Chief Justice Worthen to be the Republican candidate for the spot. He ran in the general election and won.

Chief Justice Worthen likes most the intellectual side of being a judge: studying the law and writing about it. For those about to argue before him, he had the following useful comments.
  • Bench Exhibits – He discourages bench briefs. “If you want the court to see something, attach it to your brief.” He’s never known bench briefs or exhibits to work out well during argument; “they tend to distract either the lawyers or the justices.”
  • Oral Arguments – As a general rule, oral argument isn’t useful, “although it is one of the most fun things [we] do.” But lawyers beware. He states that oral argument can be a useful tool when the court is confronted with a lawyer who wrongly thinks he is going to win his case. In this situation the judges will bring the lawyer in and “help him understand why his case isn’t strong.”
    Jury arguments are not effective at oral argument. Also ineffective are lawyers who “don’t understand where their case fits in the pantheon of the law.” The most effective arguments are those given by seasoned, skilled lawyers who are willing to concede weak points and emphasize their strong points. “A lawyer enhances his credibility when he is able to acknowledge the weaknesses in his case.”
  • Cases of First Impression – When Chief Justice Worthen is sitting on a case of first impression, he focuses on “how the case fits into the framework of the law.” “We now have 1000 years of common law. How does this case fit into that continuum or into the statutory framework?”
  • Judicial Philosophy – His judicial philosophy is “restrained.” He “likes to decide cases as narrowly as possible.”
When he is not on the bench, Chief Justice Worthen most likely is traveling, reading, doing additional public service with one of the numerous law-related committees on which he serves, or golfing. Currently his handicap is in the high teens.