In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), which celebrates the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States, the Texas Bar Blog connected with Lauren Sepúlveda, a McAllen-based municipal judge and chair of the Texas Young Lawyers Association. While the first in her immediate family to practice law, Sepulveda is part of an extended family of attorneys. The judge discussed her day-to-day at the McAllen Municipal Court, not originally aiming to become a judge, and balancing justice and mercy.
Are you the first in your family to practice law?
While I am the first person in my immediate family to practice law, my uncle Eloy was the first person in our extended family to become a lawyer. I remember visiting his office growing up and thinking how lawyerly his office looked with his bookshelves and dark leather couches. I wanted an office just like it when I grew up.
My cousin Chris started law school at UT two years before I began at Baylor Law. Since then, it’s been an avalanche of lawyers in our family—my little sister Roni joined me during my 2L year at Baylor Law, my uncle Jaime then graduated from Texas A&M School of Law and became a lawyer a couple of years after that, and my cousin Eloy is currently a 3L at Thurgood Marshall.
It’s been great getting to work with my family on legal matters and see them around the local courthouse. We’re a close extended family as is, but the law has brought those of us who are lawyers much closer.
When you were looking at law schools, how did you decide on Baylor?
I wasn’t decided on where I was going until fairly late in the process. I did the normal thing and applied to all the Texas law schools to see where I got in. I got into a couple of schools, but I was torn on where I wanted to attend. While on a road trip to Austin with my dad, we stopped by the Baylor Law campus to visit, and it felt like the perfect fit right off the bat. I loved that it was known as a tough trial-oriented school, and I liked the small class size and that it was centrally located.
Was there a particular focus in law that drew you in?
I don’t think there’s a specific area of law that really drew me in before going to law school, but more the idea that lawyers really had the power to change the world and fight for what was right. I wanted to find a job that would be more than a job—that would be a life. I had a feeling the law would be that for me.
What sorts of cases normally come through the McAllen Municipal Court?
We see a little bit of everything! I, along with our four associate judges, magistrate all arrests that come through our police department before they’re taken to county for processing. On any given day I can review and set bond on everything from criminal trespass charges to a capital murder.
Our day-to-day dockets include traffic citations, code enforcement citations, animal control cases, parking citations, indigency and hardship dockets, and citations issued to juveniles.
I also review and sign arrest and search warrants for all levels of criminal cases and review and sign administrative search warrants for code investigations and abatements. Municipal court really is a jack-of-all-trades kind of place!
Did you always feel your path was to the bench?
Not at all. Up until late 2020, everyone around me, including myself, fully felt I was going to be a career prosecutor. At that point, I had been at the county for almost 10 years and was chief prosecutor in the 430th District Court. I loved trying felony cases and was deeply involved in presenting for and helping train new prosecutors at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. I referred to myself as a “lifer” and had just been put on the biggest case of my career when the presiding judgeship opened up. My friend sent me the job listing and told me he’d thought I’d be perfect for it. After talking to my family and work colleagues, I decided to go for it and shoot my shot. Some days I still can’t believe I ended up here!
What was the transition like from prosecution and criminal defense to now presiding over cases?
Honestly, it’s been rougher than I thought it would be. I loved working up and trying cases, and during my first bench trial, I really struggled with not being a litigant in the trial. I think having worked both sides of criminal law really helped to prepare me to better evaluate cases when looking at arrests.
Transitioning from a passionate advocate to fair and impartial jurist has been an adjustment. I was lucky to have been in front of some truly great judges that proved to be great models of civility and competency on the bench. I try my hardest every day to be polite and impartial to all those who appear before me and to make sure justice is served.
How did you decide to get involved with the TYLA board?
I had been accepted to the LeadershipSBOT 2016-2017 class, and fellow Hidalgo County lawyer Victor Flores had joined the TYLA board and was encouraging me to run for the District 13 director seat. In his time on the board, he’d had such a positive experience working with other young lawyers across Texas and serving the profession and the public. I was already deeply involved in our local young lawyer affiliate, and it seemed like a great way to get involved on a statewide level. When I asked the then District 13 director about TYLA, she told me she was not planning to run for reelection and that I should run for the seat in the next election. I did and the rest is history!
Is Vote America! still your favorite TYLA project? What are some takeaways you have since the project first rolled out to high schools?
It is! I grew up in a political family, and the importance of voting was always stressed to us as children. When Victor and I initially rolled it out in the run up to the 2016 election, it was great to see how engaged everyone was. It seemed like for the first time in a long time, young people understood the importance and the power of the vote and were motivated to register. That movement has only grown over the past couple of years, and now when I present to schools, kids are more engaged and motivated to register to vote than ever before.
Since then, I love that the board has expanded the project to include Court the Vote, which informs voters of their rights in the light of new voting laws. We’ve had the Court the Vote push cards translated into several different languages and placed in non-traditional places so that everyone can access information about this fundamental right.
You’ve also been actively involved in bar work through involvement in the Criminal Justice Section. What did you get to take part in with that section and why is getting involved important to you?
I had the honor to serve on the Criminal Justice Section for several years as a council member. The entire council is made up of heavy hitters (and incredible people!) involved in the criminal justice system. I was able to serve as chair of the CLE committee, where we brought CLEs to traditionally underserved places (such as the county I currently practice in). Getting involved in the Criminal Justice Section was important because I believe in always working to better the profession.
What motivates you the most to work in the legal field?
As a lifelong government attorney, the pay was never the motivator for me—the people always were. Whether it was defending an innocent person accused of a crime, representing a victim or surviving victims of a violent crime, or now, making decisions and judgments that impact lives on a day-to-day basis and encourage compliance with the law—I have always loved that what I do has meaning. Assessing a $300 fine for speeding, forfeiting an abused animal to the care of a local animal shelter, or setting a bond that protects the safety of any alleged victims but that the defendant can afford to make—these decisions continue to greatly impact people’s lives long after I make them. I am extremely blessed to work in an area that allows me to balance justice and mercy and make an untold impact on my community.