When I spoke to the Minnesota IP bar in Minneapolis a few months ago on what you need to know to practice in the Eastern District of Texas, one of the things I talked about was the camaraderie among the local bar that comes from years of preparing and trying cases against each other. I listed off the various bar groups that are primarily social, finishing by mentioning that we appear to actually create organizations just so we can go have barbecue together on a regular basis.
Which brings me to the Hon. T John Ward American Inn of Court, which was founded in 2006 to recognize and honor Judge Ward, but which in practice appears to be dedicated primarily to the proposition that at least four times a year the local lawyers that practice primarily in federal court will get some decent barbecue at the Country Tavern in Kilgore Texas and grump (with the assistance of good speakers) about how much better practicing law was back in the good old days. When comedienne Kathleen Madigan made a remark in a routine about places where there's a goat on the property and she knows some point in the evening she'll hear the words "sum bitch" and a bottle breaking - I think of the Country Tavern (although I have no personal knowledge of the goat). We actually cater barbecue from the Tavern to Marshall during our trials, so if you've tried a case out of the Hub, that's probably where the ribs came from.
While we always have good programs on timely topics, last night was a barn burner. Judge Bill Bryson of the Federal Circuit (who as I mentioned earlier in the week in Marshall trying a patent case) was our special guest, and our guest speaker was Justice Sharon McCally of the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, who spoke on the topic of the vanishing jury trial. Justice McCally did her dead level best to provoke a fight with the audience over whether what she called "timing orders" were a good idea. She emphasized that when she was a state district judge in Harris County from 2004 – 2010 she did not limit attorneys' time in cases, and found that that procedure worked well, contrary to the practice of many other district judges.
Faced with a room full of lawyers that were strong proponents of the right to trial by jury, but which appeared to not have a problem with active judicial management, including time limits (yes, we're an odd bunch) Justice McCally was finally able to provoke the white–haired gentleman sitting at the table nearest to her to defend the practice. He explained that time limits was traditional in the Eastern District of Texas going back to when he was trained by the late judges Bill Steger and Joe Fisher on how to try a case in federal court. Judge Ward (because that's who the white-haired gentleman turned out to be, which made the discussion just hysterical to the attendees) said that there was "no doubt" that the time limits actually helped him do a better job as a lawyer, and in any event, that the federal courts, as opposed to state courts, just could not operate without the restrictions, which those who commented endorsed. (Seriously, we say this even when the judges aren't around, and not just because the NSA is probably listening). Others noted that time restrictions were particularly helpful for patent lawyers and explained why. So the discussion tended to focus more on the vanishing jury trial in state court, since as was remarked upon by several, Eastern District of Texas is somewhat of an island when it comes to the continuing vitality of the jury trial. (Two are finishing up today in Marshall today as previously noted).
Justice McCally then began discussing the issue of reduced jury trials in the context of appellate proceedings, which provoked the funniest moment of the evening. "Does anyone here do appellate work?" she asked. Judge Bryson started to raise his hand – and Judge Gilstrap pushed it down, knowing what was coming next. Which was, of course, only the reasoned, logical analysis of appellate proceedings in state court by a room full of trial practitioners in an East Texas roadhouse. (I didn't hear broken glass but there might have been a "sum bitch" or two). That the discussion was led by a state court appellate judge just underscored how enjoyable and candid these evenings are.
I guess you had to be there. But I did want to point out how much I and I know the other attendees enjoyed the discussion with Justice McCally last night. It was a memorable evening, and I hope we have many more like it in the future.