The San Antonio Bar Association’s (SABA) Annual Meeting and Past Presidents Appreciation took place on Thursday, August 22ndat the Plaza Club, and was brimming with distinguished guests from the municipal, state and federal courts.
Among the notable attendees, guests included former congressman, the Hon. Charlie Gonzalez, Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, Supreme Court of Texas Justice Paul Green, Supreme Court of Texas Justice Brett Busby, Chief Justice Sandee Bryan Marion of the Fourth Court of Appeals and keynote speaker Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas. 25 former SABA presidents were introduced and recognized for their continued bar and civic leadership.
Immediate Past President Santos Vargas presented the prestigious President’s Award to 2019 recipient Robert Soza, Jr. The award recognizes a SABA member for their volunteer service to the bar. Mr. Soza, a partner at Jackson Walker, chairs the Community Justice Program (CJP) Interim Board and over the past year has developed a team to expand the leadership, partner base and funding sources for the volunteer lawyer program. To illustrate the results of the Interim Board’s work, it was announced that the CJP was recently awarded a $262,000 grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, an amount triple of any previous grant received by the Community Justice Foundation.
Following Soza’s acceptance, the 2019-2020 SABA Board of Directors was sworn-in by Chief Justice Hecht. Newly installed SABA President Tom Crosley recognized SABA Immediate Past President Vargas for his service and leadership to the bar.
Co-Chair of the Program Committee, Ms. Jane Macon, introduced Judge Fred Biery, a close friend and law school classmate of the keynote speaker, with “The two men you will hear today have 79 years of judicial service” Macon began, “[t]he really old one will go first” she concluded with a smile, and welcomed Biery on stage.
A Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law alumnus, Judge Biery shared nostalgic memories of his friend and fellow Sumner Scholar, Chief Justice Hecht. Judge Biery recalled a time when books, room, board and tuition were only $5,000 annually - still enough in those days to intimidate Sumner Scholars into working hard to maintain their scholarships. Biery was eager to paint a picture of a modern-day Hecht beyond the robe, sharing that Hecht remains humble by playing the organ with his church in both Dallas and Austin, and teaches Sunday school just as former President Carter once did. However, Biery was also quick to warn that Hecht is far from perfect, recalling that Hecht fell 2-points short of scoring a perfect score on the LSAT, and that those 2-points no doubt haunt Hecht to this day. Biery ended the introduction of his long-time friend by paraphrasing General Douglas MacArthur “Old judges never retire, they just lose their appeal.”
Chief Justice Hecht began his presentation with a surprise piano performance of “Texas, Our Texas,” accompanied on violin by Justice Busby and Justice Paul Green, who lent some well-placed tambourine shakes for the final notes. It was undoubtedly the most distinguished version of the Texas state song ever performed at the Plaza Club.
Chief Justice Hecht then addressed trends within the Texas judiciary system. Chief Justice Hecht noted that remarkedly, Texas is at a 26-year low in criminal court cases. This was attributed to the bail reform rules implemented in many local municipal systems where defendants are provided more options to pay fines rather than jailed upon inability to pay. While some local governments were skeptical to offer payment plans, criminal cases are not only trending down but government is boasting higher rates of collections.
He noted that the most impressive trend in civil litigation is seen in guardianship cases, and suggested that Texas courts, most often in cases involving children or juvenile justice, are trending to take these sensitive cases off the dockets and address them individually. He also encouraged support of the Judicial Commission on Mental Health as they developed court resource programs to address mental health issues in both the criminal and civil courts. Chief Justice Hecht noted that the Texas court systems must be focused on “being able to distinguish between the sick and the bad” in order to efficiently move cases through their dockets.
The Chief Justice believes technology will expedite much of the upcoming changes in Texas courts, and announced that beginning January 1st , Texas will require electronic filing across all 254 counties in the state, with the only exception in juvenile court. Chief Justice Hecht also unveiled that Research Texas, the online resource to access electronic filings in the Texas courts, should soon be available to the public. And finally, the Chief Justice revealed that the Texas courts are researching the means for a standardized statewide case management system, with plans to implement this system in the next two to three years.
Chief Justice Hecht ended his speech on an inspiring note and applauded the Texas legislature’s generosity towards pro bono funding in Texas, which mirrors the support recently expressed at the federal level. “Congress has just expanded the appropriation for Legal Services Corporation by a third, the biggest raise that they have had in their 45-year history” and opined that “access to justice is not a partisan issue…[it is simply] the right thing to do.” The Chief Justice added that providing legal aid across Texas for those at-risk should be a priority, and that Texas lawyers are doing an outstanding job already. Chief Justice Hecht proudly remarked that Texas attorney-volunteers donate over 2 million pro bono hours a year to those who are underserved.
SABA President Tom Crosley thanked Chief Justice Hecht for his address and expressed his appreciation to the many attendees and honored guests. The 2019 SABA annual meeting was then adjourned.