I began my legal career trying cases as an assistant criminal district attorney in Collin County, and tried approximately 100 jury trials to verdict. I tried civil cases, criminal cases, bench trials, and jury trials. When I was provided the opportunity this February by the administrative judge of my administrative region to serve as a visiting judge, presiding in a criminal trial, I jumped at the chance. (Texas Gov’t Code § 74.054 (Appellate Justices may be assigned to a trial court); Texas Gov’t Code § 74.042 (b) (First Administrative Region); Texas Gov’t Code §74.060 (14-day limit per annum (only applies to initial assignment)).) I subsequently accepted two more criminal trial assignments. (https://www.dallasnews.com/news/courts/2022/06/11/man-gets-life-sentence-for-sexual-assault-after-conviction-in-dallas-cold-case/.)
Each was a fascinating and educational challenge, quite distinct from my day job as a justice on an intermediate appellate court. In each case, the lawyers were very capable and tried their cases well. I distinctly recall when I first heard “Objection!” I was immediately jolted out of being merely a fascinated spectator. I realized all eyes were on me, awaiting my ruling. The lawyers identified the legal basis for their objection, and I tried to respond as accurately as I could. The near-instantaneous ruling required is distinct from the typical method followed by an intermediate appellate justice. I didn’t have briefs to inform my decision, nor time to consult with staff attorneys, nor fellow justices. I had to rule. I felt very acutely the weight of the responsibility, and was grateful to be trusted by the duly elected trial judges with the management of one of their cases. In two of the criminal trials, I had to assess punishment. Those were undoubtedly the most difficult decisions of my judicial career. I did my best.
My assignment renewed and refreshed my preexisting respect and admiration for trial judges. All Texas lawyers who accept that responsibility know how hard it can be. First and foremost, you want to get the law right. You also want to be fair. Capable advocates make that standard more elusive. Lawyers can be very persuasive, and maintaining perspective is challenging.
I have been serving in my current role in Texas’ justice system since January 1, 2019, and I have learned much about Texas law. I have also come to more fully appreciate standards of review and their application. Texas has two basic standards of review: de novo and abuse of discretion. Serving as a trial judge provided real clarity in the wisdom of this general dichotomy. There really is nothing like being there. So much that informs your decisions is not reflected on the record. Personal observation of a witness’ demeanor and attitude are quite illuminating.
I hope the parties in the cases where I have served as a trial judge feel like they were given a fair trial. By “fair trial” I mean one that was decided fairly by the evidence—and according to Texas law. My personal view is that the trial judge should, as much as possible, remain passive throughout the process. The jury’s decisions should be based on the testimony and evidence, informed by the arguments of counsel. Trial judges should serve as the referee, and only answer those questions the parties require them to answer. Next year, when I will again be eligible for assignment as a visiting trial judge, I hope to serve again. As we emerge from the pandemic, local jails are full to bursting with persons accused of crimes. Texas may need additional trial judges to make the constitutional guarantee of a speedy and public trial a reality. (Art I, § 10 Texas Constitution, 6th Amendment U.S. Constitution.) I hope to do my part.
Bill Pedersen III was elected to the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2018. He previously served as an assistant criminal district attorney in the Collin County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and was an attorney in private practice for more than 15 years, representing clients in criminal and civil litigation matters in both Texas and federal courts. Pedersen is admitted to practice before the United States District Courts of both the Northern and Eastern Districts of Texas and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.