Chief Justice McKeithen seeks second term on appeals court

David Yates Jan. 16, 2008, 5:37am

Editor's note: See David Yates' story on McKeithen's opponent, "Wright faces fellow Republican, incumbent in quest for appellate chief post" also on the Record Web site.

First elected to the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals in 2002, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen will face off with fellow Republican Jay Wright in the upcoming March 4 Texas primaries.

The Ninth District justices hear civil appeals from state district courts in 10 counties: Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery, Newton, Orange, Polk, San Jacinto and Tyler. The chief justice has a six year term.

A family man with extensive civil and criminal experience, Justice McKeithen, 57, has played an instrumental role in turning around the "distressing trend" of reversals by the Texas Supreme Court and adding a fourth justice � "without raising taxes" � to Beaumont's appeals court during his time on the bench.

"I am happy and proud to be able to say that we (Ninth Court of Appeals) are one of the least reversed courts in Texas now," Justice McKeithen told the Record during a Jan. 15 interview.

Before Justice McKeithen's arrival, the Ninth Court of Appeals often saw the bulk of its decisions reversed by the Supreme Court and had become one of the most reversed courts in Texas, said Justice McKeithen.

"In one year alone (1998), the court had around 38 writs reversed," he said.

The court's high U-turn rate was one of two reasons leading Justice McKeithen to leave his private practice in Montgomery County and run for chief justice of the state's Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in 2002.

His other reason: petition the Texas Legislature for an additional justice seat.

"(The Ninth Court of Appeals) is one of Texas' busiest courts," said Justice McKeithen, adding that because of the high volume of cases coming in, the court had to transfer cases to other courts. "They went everywhere, all over the state."

In 2003, Justice McKeithen worked with a state senator to add a fourth justice. The fruits of their combined labor yielded a new seat on the appeals court.

"And we did it without raising taxes," Justice McKeithen said. "We are now transferring fewer than 10 percent of our cases."

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Ninth Court of Appeals stays so busy is the amount of lawsuits pouring through the lower courts.

"More lawsuits are filed in Jefferson County per capita than the other nine (surrounding) counties in this district," said Justice McKeithen, when asked if the county's climate favored plaintiffs or defendants.

However, Justice McKeithen says the alarming statistic is not a reflection of the county's four district judges. "They are all honorable men that do their best to administer justice."

When it came to evaluating himself, Justice McKeithen says he always "follows the law, even when the result is harsh."

The justice remembered one wrongful death case that involved the fatality of a young boy. The court found that under the law the defendant was not at fault.

"The humanitarian part of me wanted to be certain his family would recover � (but judges) must adhere to the law first."

And as far as his working relationship with the other three Ninth Court of Appeals justices goes, Justice McKeithen said, "We have one of the most collegial courts in Texas. I am extremely glad to say we all get along very well."

Before venturing into the judicial realm, Justice McKeithen received a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Houston and in 1984 received a doctor of jurisprudence degree from the South Texas College of Law. He went into private practice before joining the Montgomery County Attorney's Office and spent 10 years as Civil Division chief.

Justice McKeithen has been married to his wife Sherry for the past 37 years, who is an 8th grade math teacher. They reside in Montgomery County and have two children who are currently attending college.

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