Posts Tagged ‘Judge Sam Sparks’
Chief Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is not amused. Texas Lawyer obtained a copy of an email she sent to Sparks advising him to think before he writes. “Frankly, this kind of rhetoric is not funny,” Jones wrote. “In fact, it is so caustic, demeaning and gratuitous that it casts more disrespect on the judiciary than on the now-besmirched reputation of the counsel.”
The rhetoric, Jones said, suggests that Sparks is “simply indulging himself at the expense of counsel” or that he is fighting with the lawyers. “No judge who writes an order should allow such rhetoric to overcome common sense,” she wrote.
It may very well be the case that the “kindergarten party” order was the result of residual frustration over the sonogram lawsuit, and that he was making an example by picking on two lawyers out of the many thousands who use the courtroom to resolve relatively inconsequential disputes. Perhaps that is not, in the grand scheme of things, appropriate for a Presidentially-appointed member of the federal judiciary.
But dangit, it entertains me, and isn’t that what’s really important?
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Law is a conservative profession, in that it is rarely given to huge leaps of fancy or whimsy. English common law has given us a system based on precedent, where the challenges and disputes of the present are resolved using the solutions of the past. Innovation comes slowly, and the writing tends to be both precise and ponderous. No one reads legal briefs or law journals for the lulz.
Every so often, though, a judge comes along who challenges the notion of a staid, unflappable jurist. Today, I take a moment to salute the Honorable Sam Sparks, U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division. (Full disclosure: I am licensed to practice in the Western District of Texas, I think, but I do not have any cases in Judge Sparks’ court and do not intend to file any. Therefore, there is really no need for full disclosure. Never mind.)
Lawyers who practice in federal court in Austin generally know that Judge Sparks does not abide tomfoolery in his courtroom. Despite conventional wisdom, every so often lawyers who should really know better decide to bring questionable motions in his court, and his responses and resulting orders ought to be forever recorded in the annals of legal history.
Above the Law, as with so many stories, has a good overview of some Sparks gems. In 2004 he compared bickering lawyers to kindergarteners, and in 2007 he issued an order in rhyming couplets, complete with this conclusion:
There will be a hearing with pablum to eat
And a very cool cell where you can meet
AND WORK OUT YOUR INFANTILE PROBLEM WITH THE DEPOSITION.
My personal favorite story out of his courtroom comes from recent news and involves litigation over Texas’ new ultrasound-before-abortion law. The Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit in federal court in June seeking to block the new law from taking effect (read the original complaint). The defendants in the case are the individuals and agencies that will be charged with enforcing the new law: David Lakey, M.D., Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services; Mari Robinson, Executive Director of the Texas Medical Board; and David Escamilla, County Attorney for Travis County. Seems pretty straightforward–group opposes a new law, so sues the state officials in charge of enacting it–and uncontroversial, at least procedurally, right?
Oh, silly, silly reader(s)….
Have you forgotten that this is Texas?
Not content to allow this lawsuit to proceed in the same fashion as any other lawsuit filed in America, the two sponsors of the bill, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, asked leave of the court to file amicus briefs supporting the law. On August 9, 2011, Judge Sparks said no (PDF):
Both parties in this case are well-represented by competent and diligent counsel, and neither they nor this Court needs assistance from Senator Patrick or Representative Miller–particularly when much of their “assistance” is nothing more than thinly-veiled rhetoric. This is a federal lawsuit about the constitutionality of a statute, not a soapbox for politicians or a sounding board for public opinion. The Court is confident counsel in this case can protect their clients’ interests all by themselves.
Judge Sparks did not even have to make that rhyme to make it sting. A mere three days later, on August 12, he similarly rejected an attempt by other Texas legislators to intervene in the case (PDF):
[C]ounsel for the parties are more than capable of advocating for their clients’ positions without outside input. This is especially true where, as here, that input comes in the form of, among other things, commentary by legislators on “the clear legislative intent of H.B. 15′s severability clause.”
If the severability clause is as clear as the Representatives indicate, their interpretive assistance will not be required. And if it is not, it would be unhelpful, if not improper, for the Court to look to statements made by a subset of the Legislature, in a document prepared for the purposes of litigation, to determine legislative intent. (Citations omitted)
Thankfully, that put an end to the chicanery, and the case has been able to proceed according to normal court procedures. Just kidding! San Antonio attorney Allan Parker, president of the Justice Foundation (I’m not linking to them) also requested leave to intervene in the case, and he decided to do a little show and tell with his motion (specifically a picture of a “first-trimester aborted child” according to his own list of exhibits.) On August 23, Judge Sparks took his polite gloves off and went right to it (PDF, of course):
The Court has already turned down two extremely tempting offers to transform this case from a boring old federal lawsuit into an exciting, politically-charged media circus. As any competent attorney could have predicted, the Court declines the latest invitation as well.
However, the Court is forced to conclude Allan E. Parker, Jr., the attorney whose signature appears on this motion, is anything but competent. A competent attorney would not have filed this motion in the first place; if he did, he certainly would not have attached exhibits that are both highly prejudicial and legally irrelevant; and if he foolishly did both things, he surely would not be so unprofessional as to file such exhibits unsealed. A competent attorney who did these things would be deliberately disrespecting this Court and knowingly shirking his professional responsibilties, offenses for which he would be lucky to retain his bar card, much less an intact bank balance.
I have no involvement in this case at all, and yet my stomach did a few lurches reading that part of the order because I can imagine the horror of having a federal judge that mad at me, and the possible implications of that. Yes, Judge Sparks called the man incompetent, and he did it a lot. Moral of the story: if you come into Judge Sparks’ courtroom with weak arguments that he has already dismissed, you will not leave with your dignity. You might not leave with your bar card. You might not leave as financially whole as when you arrived. You might not leave at all.
Okay, that last part was an exaggeration. You’ll get to leave eventually.
This week, we have a different case (h/t Mike Johnson), involving two attorneys who may have just done something really dumb, or may have had the misfortune of doing something kind of dumb with a judge fresh off of his Allan Parker-fueled disdain for shenanigans in his courtroom. Either way, the hammer dropped on attorneys Jonathan L. Woods and Travis Barton, who have been
invited ordered to attend Judge Sparks’ “kindergarten party” on September 1 in his courtroom, covering topics such as how to properly plan and schedule depositions and how not to waste a federal court’s time for being “unable to practice law at the level of a first-year law student.”
Courts have a pretty specific purpose, and they have limited resources to achieve that purpose. The purpose is to resolve disputes, and to do so as efficiently as possible. Many Austin lawyers have horror stories about Judge Sparks (and no, I’m not telling any here), but I applaud the effort to keep idiocy out of the courtroom, and to do it with some flair. I salute Judge Sparks and his brand of don’t-*******-with-me-in-my-courtroom jurisprudence.
That said, I know full well that if I ever argued a case in his courtroom, he would eat me for breakfast and use my bones for toothpicks at lunch. And I’m okay with that.