Chief Justice Jim R. Wright: A West Texan Through and Through

by Kem Thompson Frost, Fourteenth Court of Appeals

Eastland, a boomtown in the 1920’s, is home to the Eleventh Court of Appeals of Texas. The court’s Chief Justice Jim R. Wright lives just outside of town at Lake Leon. The three-time gubernatorial appointee has served as the Court’s Chief Justice since 2005, when Governor Rick Perry appointed him to fill the vacancy created when Chief Justice W. G. Arnot III left the bench.

Chief Justice Wright, then and now the most senior member of Eastland’s three-judge court, first took a seat on the appellate bench in 1995, when then-Governor George W. Bush elevated him from the trial bench, where he had served for eighteen years. A third Texas governor, Bill Clements, appointed Wright to the 91st District Court in Eastland in 1979. At the time, Wright had been in private practice only seven years, but the young lawyer must have seemed an obvious choice for Governor Clements. Wright had been a standout at Texas Tech University School of Law, where he graduated third in his class. The strong start gave Wright the momentum to become a judge very early in his legal career.

A native of Eastland, Wright developed an interest in the law at a young age. Watching lawyers in town, Wright began to imagine himself as a lawyer and always knew he wanted to go to law school, though in his youth he devoted much of his time and attention to sports. He played football, basketball, and ran track. Wright earned a B.B.A. from North Texas State University. While in college, he focused his studies on accounting, developing a strong foundation in the subject that would equip him to serve as a teaching assistant for undergraduate business law classes at Texas Tech University while attending law school. At the time, the law school’s classes were held in barracks-style temporary buildings as the fledgling law school had opened its doors for the first time only a few years before Wright arrived. “We moved into the new building mid-term my first year,” he recalled. The Chief Justice was in the academically elite ranks of the law school’s third graduating class.

After graduating Order of the Coif in 1971, Wright joined the Lubbock firm of Wagonseller and Cobb. He returned to his native Eastland in 1972, and opened his own law firm. As with most small town solo law offices, he practiced in most areas of the law. Already well grounded in the community, Wright began to play an active role in civic and professional activities. The native son of Eastland received the “Golden Deeds” award from the Eastland Chamber of Commerce, an honor bestowed on “those who have gone ‘above and beyond’ to make Eastland a better place to live.” Today, the Chief Justice and his wife, Pat, head a large blended family. Together, they are parents of seven and grandparents of fourteen.

Having lived in the law for more than four decades, Chief Justice Wright has a well-developed sense of a judge’s role. He believes judges should let the parties who come before the court know that the judge views every case as important. “The litigant’s property, liberty. or children are often at stake,” explains Wright, and “the parties deserve to know that their case matters.” The Chief Justice’s words are a powerful reminder of the importance of tailoring judicial actions, words, and responses to the public’s expectations of procedural fairness. Wright’s keen observation confirms what we all know instinctively: The process of arriving at justice reveals much about how the judicial product will be perceived.

Chief Justice Wright enjoys being an appellate judge. In this role, he has time to study and research issues in greater depth, a luxury not always available on the district bench. He also relishes working with judicial colleagues and court staff to solve the big problems and he delights in finding the right answers to the thorny issues. He explains that because healthy interplay among staff and colleagues is crucial on an appellate bench, he works hard to build and strengthen collegiality. His advice to anyone seeking to become an appellate judge is to “get all the trial experience you can” and “sharpen your writing skills.” Wright stresses that while mastering these technical proficiencies is vital to success, the most important thing to remember upon taking the bench is that “you no longer have a side – you are on the side of getting the right and just answer.” A judge, says Wright, “has no side except the law.”

The Chief Justice, who describes his judicial philosophy as bending toward strict constructionist, believes that in interpreting statutes and contracts, judges should focus on the plain text because, he explains, “words mean things.” Wright’s approach is simple. He looks first to glean meaning from the words used and then reads cases to see how others might have interpreted them. When approaching questions of first impression or in which only one other court has ruled, Wright begins by looking at the rationale for the rule and then applying a common-sense approach. He considers how the rule may have been applied in similar contexts or in other fields of law to see if it makes sense to draw analogies to the case under review. Good analysis and briefing play a weighty role in resolving cases of first impression, and the Chief Justice finds oral argument especially helpful in these cases because it allows the panel members to test the strength of the arguments.

Preparation is essential to the high calling of judging. To prepare for oral argument or conference, Wright reads briefs on an iPad, highlighting them electronically as he works up a case. He generally finds bench exhibits effective and useful, especially in cases in which getting a visual depiction is critical to understanding the facts. For example, Wright explained, in a boundary dispute, a diagram can make a cold record come alive. The most useful bench exhibit he ever received was a diagram showing the location of oil and gas wells in a real property dispute. The graphic aid enabled the panel members to visualize the problem and better understand the factual underpinnings of the parties’ legal arguments.

When it comes to oral argument, sometimes less is more. Wright recalled that the most effective oral argument ever made to him on the bench was a very brief one. The appellant’s lawyer had presented a less than stellar oral argument; counsel had come to court unprepared, had failed to answer the panel’s questions, and did not score a single point for his client. “At that point,” recalled Wright, “the case was the other side’s to lose.” The appellee’s lawyer, a former appellate judge, rose and said, “Your honors, I believe you have a firm grasp of the situation and I have nothing to add.” The appellate advocate of few words won the case.

The least effective oral argument ever made to the Chief Justice was delivered by an advocate who misstated both the law and the facts. “The lawyer lost credibility. Anything after that was suspect,” Wright concluded. The Chief Justice hastened to add that, in his court, such poor practice is seldom encountered.

Whether working on cases or managing administrative duties, Wright seems to genuinely love what he does and it shows. As if his exuberance for his daily work on the bench were not testament enough, Wright confirms it, saying, “For 33 years, I have loved coming to work.” But, the Chief Justice also enjoys his time out of the courthouse, much of which is spent fueling his passions for theology, music, and the great outdoors.

A commissioned, part-time pastor of Disciples of Christ Church, Wright has preached almost every Sunday for the last seventeen years. He is an avid reader of theology, history, and other non-fiction, and names C.S. Lewis as being among his favorite authors.

The Chief Justice is a music enthusiast, too. He has a rather eclectic taste that “runs from Bluegrass to Mozart and everything in between – rock, classical and especially 50s and 60’s.” Wright, who played trombone in his high school’s band, is at home on both the guitar and the piano, but insists he cannot read music. He has been known to impress a crowd when he is performing early country western music.

Hunting and fishing are also high on Wright’s list of favorite pastimes. Freshwater fishing with his grandkids on Lake Leon is a cherished weekend activity. The West Texas native is quick to point out that he grew up raising sheep and goats, and, as an adult, he raised cattle. This background, he muses, explains his affinity for ranching. “It was hard work,” says Wright, “but I enjoyed it.” And, he adds, “I still enjoy a good livestock show. It’s a good reason to visit the local livestock show grounds or to make a trip to Abilene or Fort Worth.”

The Chief Justice is a West Texan through and through. He grew up near the West Texas home of his maternal grandparents. “I lived in town, but they lived in the country,” and so, Wright explains, he experienced both worlds. His grandfather’s ranch was the setting for many life lessons that he carries with him to this day. “My parents as well as my maternal and paternal grandparents instilled a strong work ethic within the family. I have always appreciated the strength of that ethic,” explains Wright. But, he adds, “balance is important, too, so sometimes it is good to spend a half-day playing and a half-day working. My mom and dad always followed that practice with my sister and me. For instance, when we would go to our lake place for the weekend, we spent the first half-day or so working on the place and then we could play.”

Whether working or playing, Chief Justice Wright embraces the day with a grateful heart. He is eager to express his gratitude for faith and family, and for the law and those called to its service. He is especially grateful to have had good mentors in his life and in his career. One of his predecessors – former Chief Justice Austin McCloud – served in both roles. “I’ve known Judge McCloud since I was a child. He has always been more than a legal mentor – he has always been a friend,” explained Wright, adding that one of the things he found most admirable in mentor McCloud was that he was approachable and never pretentious.

Sometimes small events leave big impressions. Wright recounted how, as a young lawyer, he went to visit Judge McCloud to get career advice. Wright arrived at McCloud’s office during business hours and Judge McCloud greeted him in stocking feet. “That struck me as so genuine and unpretentious--I felt at ease and more than ever I wanted to be just like him,” recalled Wright. Over the years, Judge McCloud served as a valuable mentor to Wright, first during Wright’s lawyer years and later as a judicial colleague. Wright eventually succeeded his mentor as Chief Justice of the Eleventh Court of Appeals.