Judge Rhonda Hurley of Travis County tells how a former client in 1996 persuaded her to adopt the woman's child, a child who became "the biggest blessing in my life."
Serendipity has defined the life of 98th District Judge Rhonda Hurley.
She has embraced surprises on all fronts of her life, but the most important unexpected event came in 1996 when Hurley practiced family law at an Austin firm.
Hurley says she worked with a woman whose children were in the custody of Child Protective Services (CPS); the law firm tried to help the mother win the kids back. The case spanned more than a year, and Hurley says she and her client developed a close relationship based on trust. During the case, the client became pregnant, and it was clear she probably wouldn't get her older kids back from the foster system.
"At some point she decided and came to me and said, 'Would you take this unborn child, because I don't want to give another kid to CPS,' " Hurley recalls.
After serious conversation and contemplation, Hurley decided to step down as the woman's attorney: She would adopt the child.
"When he was born, I was there and brought him home from the hospital. . . . It's like the hardest thing I've ever done, and it's the best thing I ever did," Hurley says. She named the baby boy Nicholas; he now is 14 years old.
Hurley's ability to embrace major changes may arise from her childhood, when her family moved every two years because of her father's Air Force career. She says she learned to connect with peers quickly and to get along with different types of people.
Hurley earned a psychology degree from Baylor University in 1981 and her J.D. in 1984 from Baylor University School of Law.
After law school, Hurley practiced commercial litigation for a year as an associate with Kammerman, Overstreet & Hurren in Austin. She left in 1986 to join the Travis County District Attorney's Office, where she mainly worked on child abuse cases. In 1995, she returned to private practice — and an entirely new area of law.
Hurley learned family law from 1995 to 1997 as an associate with Piper and Powers in Austin; while working there she became Nicholas' mom.
She ran her own family law and mediation solo practice from 1997 to 2003, when a serendipitous phone call pulled her into the Travis County district courts. She accepted a job as an associate judge, handling CPS cases.
In 2007, then-98th District Judge W. Jeanne Meurer decided to retire, and Hurley says she took a career leap she never envisioned: She won election to the 98th District Court in 2008, and took the bench in 2009.
"I think all those skills and all that knowledge I learned in each of those positions has led me where I am today and probably makes me a better judge than I would have been had I stayed in one place that whole time. And it was kind of fortuitous. I wasn't looking for any of these things to happen," Hurley says.
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed questions to Hurley about practicing in her courtroom. Below are the judge's answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Rhonda Hurley
98th District Court
Elected to the bench: 2008
Texas Lawyer: What was the single most significant motivating event that made you want to serve as a judge?
Judge Rhonda Hurley: I really never planned to be a judge. I always thought of myself as an advocate. When I became a mediator I realized there really were two sides to a case. As I did more mediations I started to develop a sense of what I thought should be the outcome in a case. It was then that I started thinking I might want to be judge.
TL: What was the moment counsel made you maddest in your courtroom?
Hurley: I was hearing a child custody case and the mother of the child was representing herself. In her testimony, she claimed to have been sexually abused as a child by her father. When we returned to court after the lunch break, the attorney for the father of the child had the alleged perpetrator sit in the courtroom in an effort to intimidate her. I was infuriated.
TL: What was the most effective technique you saw counsel deploy in your courtroom?
Hurley: I see a lot of great lawyers in my court. Generally, an organized presentation with visual aids, such as spreadsheets, graphs, flow charts, etc., is very helpful.
TL: What is the toughest case over which you have presided and why?
Hurley: I hear many cases having challenging legal issues; however, cases involving children are the most difficult. I presided over a child-custody case where the mother wanted to relocate across the U.S. She had a compelling reason to move. The father could not relocate due to his job, and both were very good parents to a young child. It was difficult to balance the needs of the parents and to decide what really was in the best interest of the child.
TL: What are the differences you expect from counsel arguing before a jury versus before you alone?
Hurley: With a judge, lawyers can strictly argue the law and the facts and avoid making emotional or dramatic appeals like they would with a jury. I give more latitude with jury argument for the lawyers to make more persuasive presentations.
TL: What should lawyers know before coming in your courtroom?
Hurley: Be on time. I get to the office early. Be prepared and ready to go. I like a well-organized and concise presentation of the issues in the case. Time management is crucial when handling a large docket, so I don't like to waste time.
TL: Do you have any courtroom formalities that you prefer to follow exactly?
Hurley: I am a Baylor graduate where I learned respectful advocacy. I follow rules of decorum such as standing when speaking to the court, speaking one at a time, generally being respectful to the court and to opposing counsel. It is imperative to me that all lawyers show respect for the integrity of the judicial system, especially in the presence of citizens who might be in the courtroom participating or observing.
TL: After being a judge, how would you change your practice if you were to become a working attorney again?
Hurley: I would keep in mind that even though I know my case well, this is the first time the judge is hearing about it. I would tailor my presentation with that in mind. For example, I would speak slowly, identify the parties, give a basic chronology and identify the legal issues. What is most helpful to the judge is to know upfront what the issue is and what the lawyer is seeking.
TL: What would be your most honest warning for your prospective replacement?
Hurley: Be decisive. Be prepared to make very difficult decisions. When necessary, like in trial, don't be afraid to "pull the trigger" and rule quickly. Otherwise, take the time you need to make a decision that you will be comfortable with at the end of the day.
TL: What advice would you give your son if he decides to follow in your footsteps, careerwise?
Hurley: As a teenager, I find Nicholas to be thoughtful, sensitive and compassionate. He would make a great judge if he chooses. I would tell my son to do his job with integrity and courage and to always be mindful of doing what's right. I want him to keep an open mind to opportunities and possibilities that might come along. Foremost, I want him, when it comes to his life, to take chances and never "sit it out."