Reflections on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals

On September 12, 2017, the First Court of Appeals celebrated its 125th anniversary, and the Fourteenth Court of Appeals celebrated its 50th anniversary. At a celebration to mark the occasion, Justice Ken Wise delivered a speech, which tracked the fascinating history of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. We are publishing the speech here, with his permission.

Good afternoon. What a special honor it is to be present at a significant anniversary of the Houston Courts of Appeals. Historic events of late have not been on the positive side of the ledger so this day is certainly welcome.

The creation of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals is truly a lesson in sausage making. In 1967, the Texas constitution provided for only three justices on a court of appeals. Jim Kronzer, a name familiar to us all, grew weary of waiting on opinions from an overworked First Court of Appeals. So he went to a State Representative named Jack Ogg to expand the opportunity for justice in the Houston area. Representative Ogg got his bill passed out of the House and Senator Chris Cole from Harris County carried it in the Senate.

Sen. Cole had a bit of difficulty with the state affairs committee being chaired by the “Bull of the Brazos,” Senator Bill Moore. Cole couldn’t get a hearing. Wondering what it might take, Senator Cole went to visit with Senator Moore. Senator Moore informed the young Senator that it would be very helpful if Moore’s former law partner and current Brazos County District Judge John Barron could be appointed as one of the first Justices of the new court. Of course, since Justice Barron would want to stay in Bryan, it would also be helpful if the new Fourteenth Appellate District included Brazos County. Cole, of course, agreed and off Senators Cole and Moore went to visit with Governor John Connally about the new Court. Cole recruited a couple of co-sponsors by the way, Hank Grover and Barbara Jordan.

The Governor agreed to appoint John Barron to the Court should the bill pass. Shortly, Senator Cole got his hearing and the new court was created effective September 1, 1967.

The first justices were Chief Justice Bert Tunks and Justices Sam Johnson and John Barron. Justice Johnson went on to serve on the Texas Supreme Court. He was joined by four other Justices who went from the Fourteenth to the Supreme Court. Those were Harriet O’Neill, Scott Brister, Eva Guzman, and Jeff Brown. Two Justices of the Fourteenth later served in the federal judiciary, Sam Johnson and George Cire.

Curtiss Brown was the longest serving justice, serving from 1973-1995. The shortest tenure belongs to Gary Bowers who took office in 1993 and unfortunately passed away the same year.

The Fourteenth has had two chief justices who had previously served on the First Court: Adele Hedges and Scott Brister.

In our first 50 years there have been six clerks of the Fourteenth. Richard Tisdale was the first, followed by Thelma Mueller, Claudine Parten, Mary Jane Smart Gay, Ed Wells, and Chris Prine. Hurricane Harvey, by the way, has resulted in Ed Wells returning to his old stomping ground in a temporary office next door to me.

As of July 31, 2017, the Fourteenth has issued 45,265 opinions and disposed of 46,241 appeals. At least six have been reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.

The Fourteenth originally sat in the first floor of the 1910 Courthouse. It moved to the South Texas College of Law Building in 1983 and stayed there for 28 years, returning home to this beautiful building in 2011.

One of the biggest changes in all of our lives has been technology, and the Fourteenth uses it to the fullest. In the early days, the judges wrote out opinion drafts in longhand. I’m sure that resulted in shorter opinions. I can only laugh at the thought of my writing out an opinion in longhand where it would most certainly be rejected by West Publishing as wholly illegible.

Sam Johnson, son of that first justice of the Fourteenth, told me that the biggest technological advance at the court was the purchase of a xerox machine. He and I are the same age and both of us fondly remember xeroxing the side of our faces and hands, on our dad’s respective office xerox machines. Justice Harvey Hudson led the charge out of the technological dark ages by designing one of the first programs to circulate draft opinions electronically. Chief Justice Adele Hedges furthered the technological advances and paved the way for the current case management system operated by the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Today, everything the Fourteenth works on is online. We can read, write, and do research with no more than a cell phone. I maintain this ability has revolutionized the way appeals make their way through the process.

Another important factor in the performance of the Fourteenth is our coordination with the First. In addition to the efficiencies gained by sharing a clerk, we work together on security, training, and other issues. While some claim angst about our jurisprudence not always matching exactly, we can continue to hope the First Court will just do what we say.

It is a tremendous honor and a true pleasure to be a part of the relatively short history of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that we all pledge our best efforts to extend its history of success. Thank you for attending today.