Justice Ken Wise: Loving Law and Living Large

by Chief Justice Kem Frost, Fourteenth Court of Appeals

Justice Ken Wise is the newest member of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. Last October, Governor Rick Perry appointed him to fill a vacancy on the nine-member court, from the 334th Civil District Court of Harris County. A graduate of Texas A & M University, Justice Wise holds a degree in finance. He received his law degree from the University of Houston Law Center and practiced in Houston for eight years before his initial appointment to the civil trial bench in 2002. In addition to civil trial experience, Justice Wise brings a love of the law and an interesting assortment of life experiences to his new job.

When asked whether he prefers the trial bench or the appellate bench, Justice Wise simply says that he likes both in different ways. What he likes most about being an appellate judge is working with judicial colleagues on interesting cases. Contrasting his role as a trial judge with his new post on the appellate bench, Wise observes that the biggest difference might be in the approach to deciding cases. The appellate bench, he explains, affords a greater opportunity to study issues at a deeper level. Wise says he enjoys the “academic atmosphere” at the court of appeals and has welcomed the opportunity to return to a more rigorous, “law school-like” approach to solving legal problems. He finds the judicial colloquy—the back-and-forth among committed people working together to find the right answer—a fascinating way to resolve thorny quandaries.

Justice Wise finds oral argument particularly helpful in cases with issues of first impression and in cases in which the courts of appeals seem to be divided on an issue. In preparing for oral arguments, he typically reads appellate briefs on an iPad or on his desktop computer. He says he likes to be thorough in his approach to judicial decision-making and, like most appellate judges, he has a healthy appreciation for well-written briefs. When a case is briefed well on both sides, Wise observes, oral arguments tend to be richer and often more animated. A good brief can be the catalyst for a lively discussion, both on the bench and in conference. His advice to lawyers appearing in the appellate court is to come prepared.

When not on the bench, Justice Wise most enjoys spending time with family. He is currently a single parent, father to one daughter, eight-year-old Sarah Jane. The blonde, blue-eyed second-grader has stolen her father’s heart and, on three occasions, the limelight at his judicial investitures. At Justice Wise’s most recent swearing-in ceremony, Sarah Jane, who led the pledge to the flag, received an ovation from the crowd and a promise that “Whataburger is in your future” from her father. She is the pride and joy of the three-time gubernatorial appointee.

In recent months, Justice Wise has been busy making plans for a summer wedding and preparing for life with a new, blended family. He and fiancĂ©e Sara Campbell, a major gifts officer at the Houston Zoo, are planning a nuptial celebration for July. Justice Wise is eager to become stepfather to seven-year-old Jackson, who already has demonstrated an emerging interest in some of the judge’s more adventurous hobbies. There are many.

Justice Wise is an avid hunter. He has hunted all over Texas and will hunt “nearly anything, anywhere.” When it comes to bird hunting, Wise has a strong preference for geese, quail, and duck, and hunts them primarily in South Texas and Louisiana. The new appellate justice is quick to note that he hunts ducks “where Scalia hunts.” Wise smiles big at the suggestion that perhaps one day he might get the chance to go hunting with the appellate icon. But, with or without a Supreme Court justice along, Wise loves the thrill, sport, challenge, and satisfaction of hunting, especially bird hunting.

A waterfowl guide in high school and college, Wise has hunted in all conditions and with an assortment of hunting companions. He has encountered snakes in pit blinds and once, when duck hunting, held his breath when an alligator came perilously close, nearly swimming right into the blind. Wise recalled it was a good hunting day despite the unwelcome encounter.

The judge’s prowess in the hunting blind is rivaled by his prowess on the golf course. He is close to being a scratch golfer. Though Wise currently carries a handicap of 4, at one point it was +2. The lifelong golfer attributes his declining handicap to sometimes getting to play only once a month. With all of his other pastimes, it is easy to understand the lack of time on the greens, at least during hunting season and rodeo season.

Justice Wise is a rodeo devotee of the highest order. He was a member of the Texas A&M Rodeo Team and, during his college years, young Ken Wise calf-roped all over Texas. Though calf-roping was his main event, he was a competitive team roper and a steer wrestler, too. Living large eight seconds at a time, Wise found the high-risk sport exhilarating fun, Texas style.

Two-and-a-half decades later, the cowboy-turned-judge no longer competes in rodeos, at least not as a roper or a wrestler. He now directs his energy to a less daring but equally competitive event—barbequing. Wise is a member of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s World Championship Barbeque Committee, a group that is committed to preserving and promoting Texas barbeque as an art form. For those who might be wondering, the “championship” title comes from cooking, not eating barbeque, though Justice Wise is a standout at both.

Wise is a Director of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a position he earned after more than a quarter of a century as a rodeo committee volunteer. As Chairman of the Directions and Assistance Committee, Wise led the team that rounds up hundreds of lost children and thousands of lost articles every rodeo season. To mark the opening of every new “committee year,” Wise, as Chairman, ceremonially drew the first item from the “lost and found” depository, an eclectic collection of treasures that includes such things as dentures, portable oxygen bottles, scads of drivers licenses and car keys, and every make and model of cell phone. Wise notes that his committee not only works diligently to get these valued articles back to their owners but also performs the very important function of reuniting children with their temporarily misplaced parents. Rodeo work is hard work but fun work, and it comes with a few privileges, one of which is the opportunity to mingle with the rodeo elite. Wise has met a wide array of rodeo celebrities over the years. His all-time favorite is George Strait, who, in Wise’s words, is “the king”.

When not rodeo-ing, driving the fairways, or dodging alligators in Louisiana swamps, Wise divides his remaining free time fueling an assortment of other interests. A big one is shooting. Wise is a sporting clay shooter who competed for many years, making the top ten in the country in his class at the 1998 national championships in “5-stand” sporting clays. Wise also enjoys shooting pistols and has competed in practical pistol competitions.

With all that riding, roping, hunting, and shooting, it is no surprise that Ken Wise is a fifth-generation Texan. He has a rich family history that dates to the days of the Republic of Texas. Wise is a direct descendant of early Texas settler Dr. James Howe Price, a medical doctor and entrepreneur who arrived in Montgomery, Texas, in 1839. Dr. Price, whose surname is Wise’s middle name, was the proprietor of a hotel where Sam Houston regularly stayed. Today, the doctor’s medical bag is displayed at the Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville. These deep Texas roots paved the way for Wise to become a member of “The Sons of the Republic of Texas,” an organization whose members are direct lineal descendants of those that settled the Republic of Texas before February 19, 1846, when Texas merged with the United States as the 28th state.

Ken Wise loves being a Texan with a strong Texas heritage. He credits the time spent on the family’s ancestral ranch in Montgomery with shaping his character and direction. During his formative years, young Ken Wise often passed his weekends at the rural Montgomery home of a great aunt and uncle, riding horses, tending cattle, and taking in family lore and tradition. The experience, he says, left a lasting impact, a legacy that he now shares with the next generation.

Wise’s ancestral legacy also instilled in him a love of Texas history and heroes. Drawn to projects that celebrate and preserve our state’s rich traditions, Wise serves on the Advisory Board of the Former Texas Rangers Foundation and on the Supreme Court of Texas Historic Document Preservation Task Force.

Wise, who was born and reared in Houston, says he feels especially blessed that he has been able to experience both country and urban life to the fullest. The native Houstonian graduated from Strake Jesuit High School in 1986. Growing up in the big city and attending a big high school, Wise engaged in a host of team and individual sports. He especially enjoyed ice hockey. In his words, it was the “Houston Aeros Era” and he quickly became an ice hockey enthusiast, both in the rink and in the stands. He also developed a knack for music. He began playing acoustic guitar and drums at an early age. By the time he reached high school, Wise was playing in several bands. Though he did not pursue performance music, he has maintained a robust appreciation for music. Country music—the kind “the king” produces—is a favorite genre.

Wise does not come from a long line of lawyers. He is the only lawyer in his family. But, he notes, throughout his growing-up years, many formed the belief that he was a natural advocate. “Everyone that ever argued with me said I ought to be a lawyer,” Wise recalled. The judge’s first vocational ambition was to become an FBI agent. Wise explained that he pursued a law school education only because he originally contemplated going into the FBI and a law degree was one of the ways to satisfy the threshold predicate for consideration. It was the late Judge John Hill, recalled Wise, who was the driving force behind his decision to forgo an FBI career and instead become a trial lawyer and eventually a judge.

Wise reports that Judge Hill was one of his most cherished mentors. The late legal legend, who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, Texas Attorney General, and Texas Secretary of State before becoming a named partner at Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill & LaBoon (now Locke Lord, LLP), helped shape Wise’s legal and judicial career. Wise is especially grateful to have worked with Judge Hill at the firm and to have “learned from the best”. Wise says that, to this day, he values the wisdom, coaching, guidance, and practical advice he received under Judge Hill’s tutelage. Today, Judge Hill’s youngest child—Justice Martha Hill Jamison—is Wise’s judicial colleague on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals and occupies an office adjacent to his. Whether there, in the historic Harris County 1910 Courthouse that is home to both Houston-based courts of appeals, or at one of the more venturesome venues he frequents, Justice Wise is sure to be loving law and living large.